Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few; but we can’t have both.”
We as a nation are facing a problem. A same problem we have faced and overcome in the past. Income inequality is once again dividing our great nation from the have’s and have not’s.
Early in the 1900’s the United States had a vast income inequality. Workers slaved for sixteen hours a day in dangerous factories. The majority of a workers income went to paying their employer for room and board, while the factory owners collected absorbent amounts of money.
Former AFL-CIO President Thomas Donahue once said, “The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor.”
As workers fought to get a fair share of the profits, wealthy Americans began using their vast wealth to influence the political system. Using their political influence they blocked legislation that provide workers with better safety regulations, better working conditions and the opportunity to bargain collectively with their employers.
As massive workplace tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire ripped through the headlines workers had had enough. Workers began to organize and form unions. As workers fought and died, the union movement began to gain traction.
It would still be decades before Congress would pass the National Labor Relations Act that gave workers the legal right to organize. As workers began organizing and negotiating for fair wages the entire country saw the gap between the poor and the wealth slowly start to close.
Unions became a powerhouse against corporate greed by ensuring that all workers were paid fairly, had a voice in their workplace and could retire with dignity.
With the addition of Social Security and the Minimum Wage people began to lift themselves out of poverty and what emerged was a vibrant middle class that would lead the nation through decades of economic prosperity.
In the late 1960s, corporations were looking for ways to weaken the power of unions to increase their profits. The answer was something they knew all along, to elect politicians who would put the interest of the corporations above the interest of the workers. They began a massive lobbying campaign to change regulations, slash workers rights and elect politicians who would vote for their corporate interests first.
As the power of the corporations began to rise again, unions began to fall. Massive anti-union campaigns blocked workers from organizing. President Reagan fired 15,000 air traffic controllers in the 1981 PATCO strike and that drove a stake right through the heart of organized labor. President Reagan showed the nation that it was acceptable for an employer to ignore the demands laid out by the unions and when the time comes, fire them all and rehire new workers. Corporations began using this principle to break unions thereby hiring new workers are drastically reduced wages.
As workers began to lose their voice, income inequality began to rise again. By the 1980s Wall Street was booming. Corporate profits were skyrocketing. CEOs began making obscene amounts of money while the everyday worker saw their wages stagnate.
By 1983 the ratio between the average worker and the CEO was 46:1. This is double what it was only ten years earlier (23:1). The more wealth Wall Street and greedy CEOs acquired, the more workers suffered.
Corporations continued to use their power in Washington to change the rules of the game for their own benefit. They changed banking regulations that allowed corporations to file for bankruptcy on their pension obligations. After thirty years with a company workers are left with nothing. All the money they contributed to their retirements, gone. Corporations began closing factories and shipping their jobs overseas. Millions of workers lost their jobs and their retirements as factories were chopped up and sold in shady Wall Street deals that paid executives boatloads of money.
As union membership began to decline inequality between workers and CEOs grew by leaps and bounds. Now the ratio between the average worker and the CEO is over 400:1. This is eight times higher than the next highest country, Venezuela at 50:1. That is obscene.
Now over forty percent of the nations wealth is held by only a select few. Income inequality in America now is worse than it was in the 1920s.
Now that we have identified the problem, how do we fix it to rebuild the middle class and narrow the gap between the average worker and the ultra-wealthy?
The heart of the problem lies in the myth that if we give more money to the ultra-wealthy — or as the Republicans like to call them — job creators, then that money will trickle down to the rest of us. This failed idea continues to shape the political debate in Washington as millionaires and billionaires use their political lobbying groups, like the Americans For Prosperity, to push legislators to give more tax breaks to high-income earners.
Groups like the Americans For Prosperity continue to say that if we take anymore from the wealthy job creators they will just stop creating jobs. The fact is no matter how much money the job creators are given, they still are not creating any jobs. This feeds into the myth that we must give them more money.
The Americans For Prosperity also work to destroy unions, and fight against any progressive measures like raising the minimum wage. They demonize workers who want a living wage, while greedy corporations rake in more profits than any other time in history.
To begin to close the inequality gap we must rely on proven measures that have worked for previous generations. Policies like increasing the minimum wage, ensuring that the ultra-wealthy are paying their fair share in taxes and expanding Social Security. These three policies pushed America out of the Great Depression and into the most prosperous generation in American history.
It sounds simple, but given that too many of our politicians are bought and paid for by corporations and wealthy hedge fund managers, changing these policies have created the gridlock we are currently experiencing on Capitol Hill. Progressives want to move the country forward, while the Conservative majority who want to take us backwards.
There is one more change that we need to enact if we ever want see real change in America. We must get the corporations out of our political system. We need to get their dirty money out of Washington D.C. Their corruptive influence is blocking any meaningful legislation from moving forward. Politicians vote for what their corporate sponsors tell them to, no matter how much the voters disagree.
Across the country, in nearly every poll, voters overwhelmingly agree that it is time to raise the minimum wage. Despite this overwhelming voter support for raising the minimum wage, conservative politicians still oppose the increase.
As Senator Bernie Sanders says, “our democracy is turning into an oligarchy,” and that will eventually destroy America, as we know it.