America faces the greatest economic and social challenge since the Great Depression. Yet, instead of calling on this generation to pull together and tackle these issues together, many Republicans are pitting neighbor versus neighbor, having them scramble for a piece of the pie that they are continuously responsible for shrinking.
We see this most clearly in Wisconsin, as Gov. Scott Walker tries to use the current economic crisis to strip away the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions.
The fact is that over the last 30 years, corporations have demanded more from but paid less to their workers, all while their profits continue to rise. As we've seen jobs shifted overseas and once-mighty companies downsized, we have also witnessed the top 1 percent increase their share of the nation's wealth to 40 percent. The policies that have artificially enabled this shift in wealth, as well as the unfunded Bush-era tax cuts, are among the key reasons that our economy nearly collapsed three years ago -- that and the Enron-like accounting that allowed our immoral war in Iraq to remain practically invisible in our budget estimates only until recently are why record surpluses have turned into trillion dollar deficits in less than 10 years.
Not labor. In fact, the labor movement not only helped create this nation's vibrant middle class, it also created better conditions for workers of all pay scales across all industries. Without our unions, ideas that were once unacceptable -- the 40-hour work week, the eight-hour day, child labor laws, a minimum wage -- are now seen as common sense. The investment of union pensions into state and municipal bonds have not only spurred local economic development, but also saved the fortunes of a number of cities, including New York, during other hard economic times.
Certainly our current economic crisis demands tough decisions and sacrifices. However, no new math exists that makes it morally and economically logical to ask that those who are least able to shoulder the majority of that sacrifice. Eliminating jobs and demonizing those who guard our streets, teach our children and serve the public good does very little to spur economic recovery. In fact, it's a recipe for the kind of hopelessness and despair that has both social and economic consequences.
Some don't see it that way. They would rather plunge this nation into chaos all in an attempt to cut the size of government. If it costs jobs, then so be it. If it costs American innovation, then so be it. If it costs people the right to expect some kind of security in their senior years after hours upon hours of work, then so be it.
We cannot be so shortsighted. The hard truth is that we cannot just cut our way to a better future. We have to invest in the resources that will give people the tools to improve their lives and the lives of their neighbors. Just as importantly, we cannot let the current crisis reduce us to breaking from the ideals and values that have made this nation an inspiration to the streets of Cairo and all across the world.
We can balance our budgets and our ideals of due process without bankrupting our future. To believe otherwise would be to cave in to the kind of cynicism that is unworthy of our national history. Too many people have died to make this a better land- -not just for unions, but for us all.
This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News on March 3, 2011.