About 30 years ago, shortly after finishing college, I produced and co-directed an Academy Award-nominated documentary called Union Maids about three courageous women who helped organize labor unions in 1930's-'40s Chicago. It showed how unions were the product of struggle, organization, mass protests, and sometimes jail and beatings.
I believed then, and I still believe now, that organized labor is--or at least has the potential to be-- the middle class's best defense against an organized corporate oligarchy that has waged a one-sided 30-year long class war against the American middle class.
That's why I'm not surprised that the first stirrings of American resistance to the corporate oligarchy since Wall Street greed and malfeasance brought the American and world economy to its knees in 2008 are coming from the organized labor movement, centered today in the capital of Wisconsin, a state with one of the longest progressive traditions in America. And it's why I'm not surprised that some of the first acts of newly minted right-wing Republican Governors are to attempt to destroy organized labor.
When foreign dictators take power, some of their first actions usually include either breaking unions or turning them into puppets of the state. And unions, like Solidarity in Poland, are often the first line of resistance that help bring down dictatorships. In Egypt, it was internet-savvy young professionals who helped initiate and organize the mass street protests against the Mubarak dictatorship. But the Egyptian army finally forced Mubarak out when labor unions also began to strike -- particularly unions in the Suez Canal that control access to Egypt's most valuable asset -- thus threatening the economic interests of top army officers who own key sectors of the Egyptian economy.
Remember that one of Ronald Reagan's first acts as President was to break the air traffic controllers union. It was one of the first shots across the bow in a 30-year long war by America's corporate oligarchy to transfer wealth from the working and middle classes to the rich and to deregulate the economy in order to increase the wealth and power of the corporate and financial elite.
As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson point out in their brilliant and essential new book, "Winner Take All Politics", the share of income earned by the top 1% increased from 9% to 23.5% between 1974-2007 (the last year of available data). The share of the top 0.1% (the richest one in a thousand households) who collectively rake in more than $1 trillion a year, grew from 2.7% to 12.3%, a fourfold increase. From 1979-2007, the top 1%--the richest 1 in 100 households, received 36% of gains in household income and from 2001-2006, the heart of the Bush years, it was a startling 53%.
"Even more striking, the top 0.1% -- one out of every thousand households -- received over 20 percent of all after-tax income gains between 1979 and 2005, compared with 13.5 percent enjoyed by the bottom 60 percent of households. If the total income growth of those years were a pie, in other words, the slice enjoyed by the roughly 300,000 people in the top tenth of 1 percent would be half again as large as the slice enjoyed by the roughly 180 million in the bottom 60 percent. Little wonder that the share of Americans who see the United States as divided between the 'haves" and the 'have nots' has risen sharply over the past two decades -- although...the economic winners are more accurately portrayed as the 'have it alls,' so concentrated have the gains been at the very, very top."
Equally important, Hacker and Pierson show how this staggering growth in the income of a tiny elite, accompanied by a stagnation in the income of the majority of the middle class, is not the inevitable result of economic markets. It's result of a series of political decisions by corporate funded politicians to deregulate the economy while bankrupting government through tax cuts and ever less progressive taxation.
This one-sided class war by the corporate oligarchy against the middle and working class has, until now, been met by remarkably little resistance from the latter. The progressive movement, such as there is one, has been directed primarily at electing Democrats who too often disappoint it by deregulating financial markets and passing "free" trade bills that reduce American jobs (Clinton) or appointing the same Wall Street friendly economic advisors who helped create the Great Recession and cutting deals with corporate special interests to pass inadequate health care and financial reforms (Obama). There's been little of the mass progressive movements of the past which FDR said were necessary to "make him" (and other politicians) pass reforms like those of the New Deal.
But perhaps enough is finally enough. By their extremism, right-wing Republicans may have woken a sleeping giant in organized labor that is just beginning to show its power in the streets of Wisconsin. It may be the beginning of a new mass movement of the middle and working class -- both unionized and non-unionized -- to take power back from organized corporate oligarchs and to restore a measure of social and economic equality to the nation.
Just as what started Tunisia and Egypt is now spreading to Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, what started in Wisconsin may spread to Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, California, and across the country. That's why everyone who still believes in the American dream--that your children can have a better life than you do--should do everything they can to support the workers in Wisconsin. And that's why it's so vital that the union members in Wisconsin win their fight to keep their democratic rights to collectively bargain with their employers.
Last week we were all Egyptians. This week we are all Wisconsin Badgers. On Wisconsin! On America!