As we head into spring, warmer and sunnier days bring about a renewed sense of hope. So maybe, just maybe, we can stop dividing ourselves along the usual lines of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, tea party or occupy, and come together as Americans. It’s not a new idea. Any time this country goes through a crisis, we band together. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, when President Kennedy was assassinated, when President Reagan was shot, and after 9/11, we were one nation. Not red, not blue — just Americans.
Today we are amid another crisis, and this time it is killing our fellow Americans right here at home. The culprit? Poverty. In America today, one in four seniors live in poverty. One-third of bank tellers use some form of public assistance. And nearly 60 percent of people on food stamps are employed, while the remaining 40 percent are mostly children and senior citizens.
We reminisce about the good ol’ days when families took vacations, had a chicken in every pot, and employers provided health care and retirement security. It seems like a long time ago, but it’s a dream we can recapture.
First, the federal government needs to end its partisan bickering and stop treating the poor as an enemy of the state. Because of their gridlock and lack of empathy, impoverished Americans die simply because of their economic situation. Government can change the tax structure so those who benefit significantly from our consumer-driven capitalist economy contribute more of their earnings to create a more equal and just society. When Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower was in office, our top federal income tax rate was over 90 percent. Today, it is 39.6 percent, and the effective tax rate for the richest 1 percent is nearly half of that.
Second, if corporations are not going to provide their workers with a living wage, health care and retirement security then the government has no choice but to put in place the necessary standards to keep Americans out of poverty. The labor movement believes in the simple idea that if you work full time, you should not have to live in poverty.
This means we are left with a simple choice: Compensate workers fairly and provide them with benefits or continue to subsidize their employers by allowing their workers to utilize government programs to make ends meet.
If you are of the mind-set that government does not belong in the business of keeping Americans out of poverty then you have another option — support workers when they exercise their right under the U.S. Constitution to collectively bargain with their employers over wages, benefits, and working conditions. Yes, support the right to form a union. Those good ol’ days when one in three workers was a member of a union, the income gap between the wealthiest 1 percent and the rest of us was remarkably smaller. As productivity rose so did wages — and that, my friends, drives an economy.
It is really simple economics. Workers who collectively bargain earn more money and then spend that money in the local economy. Working and middle-class workers are not hoarding their money away or storing it in the Cayman Islands. They are spending their dollars because they need to. When people are buying again, our economy will thrive once more.
It is time that we all rally around the idea of making our economy work for everyone. That means raising the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017, expanding collective bargaining rights to more workers so they may have a voice at work, and supporting legislation that ensures workers can retire with dignity.
Lori Pelletier, a Middletown resident, is executive secretary treasurer for the Connecticut AFL-CIO.