I was honored to be part of a lunch talk yesterday with Andy Stern, President of the SEIU and a major factor in the Change To Win coalition. He was promoting his new book A Country That Works
, which I can't wait to finish (I'm only 20 pages in), because he was eloquent in talking about the fundamental challenges facing our country and our economy. Andy also appeared at a big Drinking Liberally event here in LA last night.
We live in a country that has completely disassociated from one of its fundamental goals enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution: to promote the general welfare. And this conversation - about our future, about the role of labor in a 21st-century global economy, about how to value work over wealth, about how to reverse the disturbing trend where my generation may become the first to do worse than our parents - has been virtually absent from the political debate, and indeed has no place in it whatsoever. We have not a political debate, but political theater that doesn't address where Americans actually live and what they actually need. It's Andy Stern's goal to raise awareness, to have this conversation, and to build a movement of people committed to change OUTSIDE of Washington that will force the government to make the necessary changes within.
This fight is our fight in the progressive movement as well.
The challenges facing working people these days are manifold. Their real wages are falling, their health care costs are rising, the economy is changing under their feet, and they're likely to have 10 different jobs by the time they're 35. But I was struck by Stern's ability to speak to the challenges facing American business as well. Every American car made here has $1,500 dollars worth of employee health care built into the sticker price; other countries take care of that and relieve that burden from companies. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, says his company spends more on health care than they do on coffee beans. American corporations simply cannot compete with the rest of the world in this environment, so they send all manufacturing jobs overseas, try to wriggle out of labor protections there, and the more insidious corporations, mainly in the service sector, that pop up in their place with jobs for the middle class have stopped providing pensions, stopped providing health care, frustrated any attempts for their workers to organize, and generally created the depressed wage market you see before you today.
Stern sees the need for courageous political leaders that can go beyond what appears to be possible today and forge a new movement and a plan to get the country where it needs to be. But he also thinks boards of directors must be courageous enough to speak out against the policies impacting them. Labor leaders must be courageous enough not to fall back on what has worked since the New Deal, and instead bring new ideas of reform and partnerships to the table. And progressives must be courageous enough to fight back against the beating that working people in this country are taking, and to make sure that everybody knows the importance of unions.
Unions have been at the forefront of even the most minor shift forward in the lives of people who work for a living, and it should come as no surprise that, at a time when unions are at their lowest ebb in decades, so are the futures of working people. Unions brought us the 40-hour week, child labor laws, overtime, pensions and the weekend. Yet their name has been sullied by economic elites who have very overt agendas to maximize profits. Why anyone who works for a living would listen to what a conglomerate like News Corp. says about unions is absolutely insane. When the country's manufacturing base left (or were allowed to leave), the unions were slow to react, and that combined with the aforementioned demonization brought us to where we are today, when only 8% of the private-sector workforce belongs to a union. The corrupt bargain made between multinationals and both political parties, where corporations now write legislation coming out of Washington, where the stratification between rich and poor is at a record high, where Wal-Mart has a higher economic output than all but 30 countries, has put us in the hle we are today. Despite leading economic indicators showing stable growth and a record-high Dow (of course, 1% of America owns 65% of the stock, so how does that matter), poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans think we're in dire economic straits. That's because they are. Permanently. We're living in a New Gilded Age, and while a tuned-out media doesn't see a problem, an alienated citizenry doesn't see that it's POSSIBLE to fix it.
This is why the progressive movement, in partnership with the labor movement (which has assisted in pretty much every element of social change in the history of the nation), must understand how important it is to reach into the community and restore hope to the hopeless. As much money as the moneyed elites have, as hard as it is to effect institutional change, it is not insurmountable. Social movements start on the street, and the political leaders then try to jump out in front of them and say that's where they were all along. The SEIU is using innovative strategies, sometimes partnering with business, at other times challenging them, to increase membership aggressively and widen their collective impact. Stern said, in a grimly funny moment, that he's OK with corporate consolidation because that's less people you need to go after. Indeed, his Wal-Mart campaign showed how even a little leverage can push a major corporate entity into changing some of their policies.
We all have a stake in promoting the general welfare, which is at the hallmark of who we are as a society. Yet the only welfare we promote right now is corporate welfare, conglomerate welfare, and the welfare of the ultra-rich. We need a government built around shared sacrifice and shared burdens. Lou FREAKING DOBBS said this last night on The Daily Show, proving that a real popular third-party movement would be economically populist and socially conservative, precisely the opposite of what the ossified brains in the DC establishment would have you believe. I personally have a lot of points of disagreement with Lou Dobbs, but clearly we need to get back to promoting the general welfare, whether through universal health care, or investments in education, or weaning ourselves off dependency on foreign oil, or establishing global labor and environmental standards so that American small business and manufacturing can compete worldwide. Without these things, America will turn into a forgotten empire, a country with a first-world brand and a third-world living condition for the bulk of its citizens. I believe America remains better than that, and that we have the talent and creativity to reverse the bad choices made and restore a sense a government that looks out for the common good.
If Andy Stern reaches your town, I strongly suggest you go see him. He's an inspiring speaker who is able to converse about topics that have literally been shut off from the political debate in recent years. This crisis - yes, it's a crisis - of the shrinking middle class is something we must face up to and fix.