In a week in which we honored the 50th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington, this year's Labor Day is a good time to reflect on the broader vision of what it means to be a union member and a working class American.
The hundreds of thousands who traveled many miles to Washington half a century ago, marched and rallied for racial justice, freedom, and equality.
But as many have noted, economic justice and jobs were also a foremost subtext to that day, as represented by many union participants and, of course, Dr. King himself who five years later would literally give his life speaking out for workers.
In 1963, labor was at its apex of strength, as evidenced just two years later with enactment of another signature reform in America, Medicare and Medicaid, the direct result of a campaign led by unions and active and retired union members.
NNU nurses at the March on Washington anniversary August 24
Participation in the March on Washington, and tireless advocacy for guaranteed healthcare for retirees, the disabled, and the most poor in America, reflect the principles and activism that were so essential to the growth of a labor movement in this nation. An activism that sees commitment to justice, equality, and human rights for everyone as central to the core vision of what it means to be a union.
Five decades later we've made significant progress on many goals of that 1963 movement. But in many ways, we are, as a nation, shockingly worse off.
Income equality and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the 1 percent is as disparate as at any time in our history. Today's children are the first generation in decades who can fear they will have a worse standard of living than their parents and grandparents.
Consider some statistics just from the last week:
• From 2005 to 2011, we've seen a 15 percent decline in home ownership among households with children and a 33 percent increase in households where at least one parent was unemployed. The number of households with an unemployed parent jumped 148 percent in Nevada and by more than 50 percent in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, New Jersey and North Carolina.
• Since the financial crisis of 2007, median household income is down 6.1 percent - or $3,400.
• The federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is frozen at the same level as 2009, and number of workers living on those paltry wages or less more than doubled the past five years.
• One of the biggest boom sectors is pawn shops. While big banks focus on limiting lending to the most wealthy, more pawn shops are operating as lending institutions to those who have no other option for help, while charging gouging interest rates of up to 25 percent. The number of pawn shops has nearly doubled in the past six years.
• At the other end of the spectrum, times have never been better, especially for those on Wall Street who created the latest round of suffering on Main Street. The big banks just recorded their biggest earnings ever, $42.2 billion in profits in the second quarter of this year. And the nation's banks are handing out more in compensation and bonuses than ever.
As nurses can tell you, the disparities are especially evident in perhaps the most significant barometer of a society, healthcare.
While the U.S. spends more on healthcare than anyone else, we have one of the highest morality rates among infants and children and one of the lowest adult life expectancy rates among all developed nations.
If there's one news story that should have jumped off the pages this week, it is the report of a 50-year-old Oregon man who robbed a Portland bank August 23, demanding $1. He then sat down and waited calmly for the police to arrest him. The reason -- he felt prison was the only place he would be able to get the medical care he needed
In the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, National Nurses United launched a campaign for a Main Street Contract for the American People, premised on the notion that the wealthiest nation on earth should be the model of a just, humane society for all its people.
Our campaign says everyone should be able to enjoy the fruits of that wealth with jobs at living wages, equal access to quality public education, a secure retirement with the ability to retire in dignity, secure housing and freedom from hunger, a safe and clean environment and high quality medical care not based on ability to pay.
We also have a proposal how to pay for a more equitable nation, the modest Robin Hood tax on Wall Street speculation, as embodied in Rep. Keith Ellison's HR 1579
Happy Labor Day