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Mr. President: The Fight for the Middle Class Isn't in Washington

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Tuesday night the nation will focus its attention on the president's State of the Union address, looking for solutions to the economic crisis in this country and in their own lives. We can hope to hear President Obama articulate a bold vision for restoring economic security to our nation's middle class. We can also hope that the president challenges members on both sides of the aisle to stop putting politics before the people's prosperity.

However, as the last two years have proven, hope is not enough. Presidential speeches and the hoped for newly moderated rhetoric of the Congress will not suffice to deliver results. Because while we are focused on Washington, Republicans backed by big business interests are undertaking a coordinated attack, rooted at the state level, on middle class employees. This attack could bring the end of the middle class as we have known it.

As the New York Times has reported, Republican legislatures in ten states across the country are pushing "right to work" laws that undermine the ability of employees who vote to join a union to have their choice respected. And even some states with Democratic governors are less focused on creating jobs than adopting measures that scapegoat those in the middle for economic problems caused by those at the top. The Republicans have been very smart tactically by framing the debate around these issues. We can only hope that people will not fall for their misdirection.

At the national level, Republicans will be talking about reducing the deficit and controlling spending. Their arguments are more about rhetoric than real action. Not only do their proposals stand little chance of being enacted, they are two-faced: even while talking about budget cuts, Republicans advocate huge tax cuts for the wealthy and seek to repeal the cost-saving measures and patient protections of health care reform. In truth, their still-heated rhetoric is primarily designed to give Republicans a message to take back into the districts in the next election cycle. We already know what they will be saying in six months or a year: "We tried to save you money, but the Democrats won't let us." The time to start responding to this disingenuous narrative is now.

We must recognize that the national posturing is a smoke screen designed to conceal the real battle, which is happening in the states.

At this very moment, conservatives are prepared with a scapegoat for the economic woes: unions and public employees. They have been very shrewd in using this time of crisis as an opportunity to drive a stake through the heart of the very organizations that have created the American middle class.

Masquerading their proposals as efforts to liberate working people from the yoke of big government, the right is attempting to systematically undermine the institutions that have historically allowed average people to attain a decent standard of living. Rather than seeking to bring everyone up to the standard of living wages and relative economic security that public employees have gained, Republicans are focused on bringing down those few people in our society who still have jobs that afford ordinary people hopes for health care and dignified retirement.

As a result, the campaign for the future of our country is now on. This is not about something as narrow as reelecting Barack Obama in 2012, or about the political future of any individual elected official. It is much bigger than that. We are in the fight of our lives.

So what do we do?

First, we can't focus all of our time and resources on the Congressional debate. The proposals being floated by the Republican House of Representatives make for good grandstanding, but, by and large, they stand no chance of actually being enacted. They are just being used to set the stage for the next election cycle. Therefore, we need to be building our own infrastructure in the districts, not treating local- and state-level politics as something that we can engage in for a few months at the end of each election cycle. We need to begin our conversation with voters in the districts today.

Second, we must make clear that initiatives like wage freezes and "right to work" laws are measures that are handcrafted by the Chamber of Commerce's lobbyists. Big business is pumping huge amounts of money into the effort to attack public employees and scale back regulations, with billionaires like the Koch brothers leading the way. That is who is really behind these drives. The extent to which the right is able to frame their message as a populist one is a measure of our failure to reveal the wealthy financiers backing their agenda.

Republicans frame their proposals as policies that will "get government and unions off your back." But what is actually being created as a result? Time and time again, these policies have not led to "trickle-down" prosperity, but have taken away gains made by average Americans and given them to corporations and those at the very top. By showing the interests that stand behind each side, we must demonstrate who is really the best advocate for Main Street.

Third, we draw a line in the sand with politicians -- and demand that the president lead the way in recognizing the crisis of the middle class. Whether they have a "D" behind their name or not, politicians should not receive one penny from progressives unless they are for increasing standards of living for average people and defending their rights to organize. Unfortunately, since the Clinton years, we have elected leaders who are taking our campaign money on one day and then distancing themselves from employees' organizations and public interest groups the next. These politicians must see that this will no longer fly. They must understand that Main Street is in a fight for its life, and they must act accordingly.

In America, the pot of rampant individualism and neglect of community has been roiling at a low boil for a long time. Ultimately, we must ask as a society: Do we want to be a place where the fire department comes if we have a fire in our homes? Is this a country where you can get care when you're sick, even if you're elderly or lose your job? Is America a place where, regardless of the town or neighborhood you live in, you can send your kids to a decent public school, with qualified professionals teaching our kids? Such things are the reason we agree to pay taxes and contribute to the common good.

At the end of the day, dismantling the government and attacking public servants means undoing these things. The President will articulate his vision in this fight on Tuesday and is even backing up words with actions like the NRLB's steps to protect organizing via majority sign-up. It's outside of Washington where we face the eliminations of people's ability to voluntarily come together in their workplace to have a say in the conditions of their employment. That would mean creating a country that has a huge gulf between the wealthy and everybody else. It means ending middle class America as we have known it. And that is not something we should let happen without a fight.

Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations in progressive, labor, and faith communities. You can follow Amy on twitter at @amybdean or visit her web site at www.amybdean.com