At Stake This Labor Day
by Mary Kay Henry, SEIU President
Labor Day, during this election year, will evoke different rhetoric from politicians than in past years. Politicians, as they make speeches recognizing the contributions of American workers to the nation’s prosperity, will also try to convince voters that their vision for restoring the middle class is best.
Voters know the state of the economy. We know that the middle class is eroding. We know that what is happening now is the result of decades of policies that favor the rich and corporations. We know that now, more than ever, rebuilding the middle class in this country is at stake. Part of reason for the shrinking middle class is not simply a lack of jobs, but a dearth of good, family-sustaining jobs. Indeed, politicos have it right. This November presents a choice between President Obama and other national candidates who stand with working people, and candidates like Mitt Romney who backs a platform that decimates public services and envisions a future in which the rich and corporations get richer.
In a study released last month, the Pew Research Center reaffirmed what working people in this country have known for years: the middle class is shrinking and so is middle class share of income. According to the study, during the last decade, middle-class income declined for the first time since the end of World War II; meanwhile, the percentage of Americans defined as middle class fell from 61 to 51 percent since 1970, and the share of income that went to upper income people grew substantially over the same period. The study follows a similar examination of middle-class decline by the Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies, which found a growing disconnect between economic output and wages.
Despite growing evidence that the middle class is in jeopardy, Republican leadership has spent the last four years blocking legislation that would put the middle class on firm footing once again. Instead of voting for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that made healthcare accessible to millions of Americans, Republicans wasted time debating intrusive women’s healthcare legislation. While Democrats made bold strides on the DREAM Act, legislation that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrant youth, Republicans continued their crusade to scapegoat immigrants. When Democrats in Congress introduced the American Jobs Act and other measures to stimulate the economy, Republicans continued the same charade, blocking progress at every step.
Republicans across this country share a common record of campaigning against working people. We saw it last year in Wisconsin, where middle class public sector workers became scapegoats and busting unions, thereby unraveling the middle class, became a policy objective. We saw it earlier this year in Alabama when Republicans passed one of the country’s most anti-immigrant bills (in a state with one of the smallest immigrant populations in the country, no less), instead of focusing on the state’s job crisis and faltering education system. And today, we are seeing in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and every other state where right-wing legislatures passed voter identification laws that, experts widely agree, more adversely affect low-income people, youth and communities of color.
It is meaningless for elected leaders to deliver empty rhetoric about working people’s contribution on Labor Day – or any day – without using their power in Washington to create an economy that works for all. From Wisconsin, Alabama, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and elsewhere, working people know what is at stake for this country. They want their elected leaders to move away from the soaring rhetoric and work for them. They want their contributions to be valued beyond Labor Day, and they want politicians in Washington to have depth of understanding of hardworking families’ everyday lives. In the spirit of the day created to honor the American worker, it’s time to get everyone back to work and create prosperity for many, not just the few.