Jay Gould, the robber baron of the 19th Century, famously said that, "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half." As we live through one of the worst economic collapses in a century, Gould’s wish is coming true. And we must stop Gould’s modern-day robber barons from sowing seeds of dissension among us, for the sake of a decent standard of living for ourselves, our children and the generations to come.
I have been troubled by this phenomena for some time: workers who don’t have decent wages, decent pensions, decent health care, not to mention a union, are increasingly saying—or being told to say—that those people who do have some semblance of a decent wage, a decent real pension, decent health care and a union, should just give all that up because, well, that’s the way the world is going.
Here are three examples of many that I have heard or seen up-close in the past few years. Back in December 2005, we had a transit strike in New York City. The union—-Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union—-went out on strike, in defiance of the law and our billionaire mayor, to preserve health care and pensions for its members. The president of the union would end up in jail because of the strike.
During the strike, a lot of people were inconvenienced—-that’s what effective strikes sometimes do. Some of the voices raised in opposition to the strike had a similar sound: why are those people making my life more difficult by going on strike to protect what they have when I don’t have a pension or health care?
I felt great sympathy for those who do not have a fair wage and fair benefits but, the fact is the transit workers went out on strike, at great risk to their livelihood, for everyone. They were drawing the line, saying that people have a right in a civilized society—yes, a right—to a real pension and health care.
More recently, we have the public spectacle of the daily thrashing in the traditional media of autoworkers. I have done a number of television debates with a variety of people who are quick to blame autoworkers for the industry’s troubles. The rap is roughly: autoworkers should make deep concessions to save the industry because the core of the problem is that autoworkers have "gold-plated" benefits and "generous" pensions.
Finally, yesterday, I wrote a piecequestioning the moral compass of New York’s governor who, in demanding that workers’ sacrifice to help cope with the state’s fiscal crisis, called for the cutting of workers’ pensions. Some of the feedback to my piece boiled down to: get real, we are in a fiscal crisis, no one has the kind of pensions being given to firefighters, teachers, police officers and other government workers so just stop complaining and sacrifice.
This is insane. The people who have a little bit more than the have-nots are not the enemy.
First point: The crisis we face—and make no mistake about it, we are in very deep—is not the making of people who have a decent standard of living—a decent standard that was not handed to them on a silver platter but was fought for and won over a number of generations, something that we too often take for granted.
We are in the mess we are in because of unbridled greed, incompetence and a blind belief in a failed economic model, the so-called "free market" (and its cousin, so-called "free trade"). The mess is not just the short-term near-collapse of the financial system. It is a mess that has been brewing for more than three decades.
We entrusted our economic security to a cadre of economists, business people and political leaders who utterly mismanaged the country and the world. The Robert Rubins of the world—-that is a short-hand for the broader class of elite managers, investors and economists—-could not comprehend, or chose to willfully ignore, the obvious: if people do not have decent wages and decent benefits, they will not have money to buy what is produced. They would never actually attain the American Dream. They would simply borrow it—on credit cards and a mountain of debt that would, eventually, come crashing down.
So, the Robert Rubin class failed in the most basic mission we entrusted to them: provide broad real prosperity. By "real" I mean real wages and real benefits, not a credit-card, debt-driven, monthly, gut-wrenching survival test of how-do-I-make-ends-meet. People have been working their asses off for 30 years and haven’t gotten the fair share of the fruit of their labor—-if wages had matched productivity since the 1970s, the MINIMUM WAGE would be more than $19-an-hour and the median wage would be $20,000 higher.
On top of the mismanagement, we know about the well-documented greed. The Madoff Malignancy, if you will, was some combination of illegal and legal greed. Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, Madoff...the list of criminals who sat at the corporate helm is quite long. A far longer list, however, would include the names of people who committed legal theft, absconding with a collective pile of hundreds of billions of dollars in pay, pensions and stock options. Both lists—-the illegal and the legal greed—-reflect a basic common thread: screw the secretaries, clerks, transportation workers, firefighters, assembly line workers, I’m going to take as much as I can for myself.
This was all done with the cover of the blessing of the so-called "free market".
And, while the greed and incompetence were eagerly competing for supremacy, everyone else was told that, in the name of "competitiveness" and "free trade", we had to accept lower wages and fewer benefits. We were told, for example, that real pensions—meaning, a check you could count on each month—were a thing of the past. Instead, the glory of the "free market" would make everyone’s 401(k)s burst at the seams.
But, like the rest of the mantra of the "free market", the 401(k) promise was just a clever way of blowing up the promise of an American community, replacing it with a fight of each individual to get his or her piece, all the while siphoning more money from the average worker into the pockets of the elite; after all, in some companies, workers’ money was being used to fund executive pensions and in other companies, the pensions of a few executives exceeds the pensions of the entire rest of the workforce.
And the fiscal crisis we face is not because of high wages or "generous" pensions. First and foremost, the state cupboards are bare because we systematically obliterated a progressive tax system in virtually every state in the nation. While an elite has been happy to benefit from living in a civilized society, it has been allowed to get that for free—and the elite has been happy not to pay its fair share. Instead, a greater share of the burden is now on the backs of the have-nots.
What a scam.
This was not the fault of the autoworker, the firefighter, the teacher or the secretary.
They did not make poor management decisions, because they didn’t run the companies or the government agencies they worked for. They didn’t loot their companies, emptying the coffers of cash for a few lucky executives. They just came to work, and still come to work, every day.
Second point: the fight between the have-nots and the have-nots is also about lowered expectations—-thanks to a relentless ideological assault over several decades. Some workers think other workers have it to good. In America today, we have become conditioned to be grateful for whatever the corporate elite throw our way; a few crumbs and we lap them up, just grateful to be the beneficiary of having a job.
When we hear the story of the "overpaid" union member or the person who abused the system, we have to be courageous enough to understand that these are lies and we have to understand where those lies come from.
The lies come from people who have never worked in an auto plant, never crawled through dangerous subway tunnels, never had to carry sixty pounds of equipment into a burning building, or never had to slaughter animals at numb-minding speeds. Work in America shortens peoples’ lives and every day they live at the end of their working days they remember work with every painful arm lift or the searing scream of a balky knee or a shorter breath of air taken by compromised lungs.
Third point: all this is fixable. But, it doesn’t get fixed by a war between the have-nots and the have-nots.
You want to save the auto industry? Fine. Autoworkers could work for free and you still wouldn’t do much (since labor is just 10 percent of the industry’s costs). Instead, the have-nots, in unison, should demand that the industry abandon the ideological opposition to "Medicare for All" (single-payer) health care and, presto, instantaneously remove tens of billions of dollars from the balance sheets of the Big Three—not to mention every other industry.
You want to solve our fiscal crisis, nationally and state-by-state? The have-nots should, in unison, demand that the country return to a more progressive tax system in which 95 percent of the people would get a tax cut and the top five percent would be asked to pay a fairer share to live in a civilized society where we all should pay for the roads, bridges, communications systems and the rest of the benefits we enjoy.
You want to give people real money to buy stuff? The have-nots should, in unison, call on the elite to channel Henry Ford and let people have decent wages, whether via a combination of broad unionization or a new moral standard that ceases the legalized robbery in the corporate suites or a new trade policy that is not based on the search for the lowest wage possible.
But bigger than a specific policy, the have-nots need to help build a new culture where we value contributions much differently than the rewards handed out today. The Robert Rubins of the world—the elite corporate class—value themselves so much that they take a gargantuan share of the wealth in our country. In essence, they are saying that their contribution matters far more than the have-nots.
But, from where I sit, I notice the absence of a Robert Rubin far less than the sanitation worker, the firefighter, the teacher, and the whole gamut of people that make this country really run. Rubin doesn’t have to work for free—-though, he certainly could with all the money he has collected from his failed leadership at Citibank. But, we need a reinvigorated valuation of the contribution of the vast numbers of people who make up the working people in the country.
We need rock-solid unity on this. There can be no light between those who have just a little bit better lives and those who don’t.
Our unity is crucial for people like president-elect Obama to be successful. The president-elect will be operating in a system that will do its best to continue the division between the have-nots and the have-nots. We can only get the change we so desperately need by having a united front that has the back of the president-elect and creates the political, and ideological, argument that will bury the spirit of Jay Gould.