The recent labor council event organized around the 2014 Committee on Political Education (COPE) awards dinner at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center was an unforgettable experience for attendees.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) 6157, representing the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District (SJECCD), was among the many unions at the event.
The combination of energy, passion and commitment among speakers and attendees was a reminder of how ordinary people uniting for a common cause can transform society.
A savage and unacceptable inequality in wealth and income is tearing America apart, so much so that in his State of the Union speech in January this year, President Obama declared reversing the tides of income inequality to be the “defining project of our generation.”
Consider the facts: Since the 1960s, the richest 0.1 percent (that is, one-thousandth of U.S. households) with a minimum net worth of over $20 million have more than doubled their share of wealth, from around 10 percent to more than 20 percent. In other words, one-thousandth of Americans now owns one-fifth of the nation’s wealth! The incomes of the top 1 percent rose nearly 20 percent compared with a 1 percent increase for the remaining 99 percent in recent years. The grim statistics gets grimmer the more you dig into the distribution of wealth in America today.
Who are subsidizing the opulent lifestyle of these Great Gatsbys of our times? Ordinary workers barely able to provide food and shelter for their families through back-breaking, low-paying, dead-end jobs, that’s who.
Richard Trumka, the national AFL-CIO president, brought this stark reality to light in his keynote speech.
“The tech-boom has achieved some tactical gains but it has also created an economy of layers,” he said. “Only those at the top get to reap most of its benefits. Tech innovation tears communities apart by concentrating wealth in the hands of a few. The new economy should work for everyone but it doesn’t.”
The AFL-CIO president, who rose to his current position from humble beginnings in the small coal-mining communities of southwest Pennsylvania, cited the plight of grocery workers, hotel employees, security guards and others to illustrate his point. “All work has dignity,” he said, “but you wouldn’t know it by looking at what is happening to hotel workers at the Hyatt here in Santa Clara! America is better than that. It is richer than that!” he said to applause.
There are people who work 40 hours a week but still live in grinding poverty. In fact, one has to earn a lot of money to be poor in Silicon Valley! “We have to stand up and fight for working people, sisters and brothers” he bellowed. “The fight for the minimum wage of $10.00 per hour was a step in the right direction. But we also have to provide healthcare to poor families. The wages of working families continue to fall while the income of the top 10% rises. Our wages must lift us out of poverty, not trap us in it,” he said.
Trumka offered a strategy to check America’s rising income inequality: Raise Wages for working people, be they domestic workers, hotel workers, childcare workers, grocery workers or laid-off engineers forced to work as security guards in hugely profitable high-tech companies like Apple and Google. “Raising wage is our agenda,” he declared. “This is what will drive our politics, not the other way round.”
The Republicans have embraced right-wing CEOs of America and are trying to lower the pay of working people. They are creating laws targeting immigrants and people of color as they tear up pension plans and the social safety net. To defeat them, “we need to bargain collectively,” said Trumka. “A groundswell is beginning to grow. Today that groundswell is right here in Silicon Valley. The South Bay labor council has taken its fight for working people from the public place to the workplace, from the streets to the corridors of City Hall. We are going to rebuild the American Dream. We will reward workers who built this country and its middle class. America hungers for unity, strength and solidarity between us. Our words are our bonds. We are united by the values we share and live with and nurture,” he said to thunderous applause.
Broad prosperity for all is good for America while wealth in the hands of a few can destroy America. From street sweepers to day laborers to hotel employees to teachers to everyone struggling to make ends meet in this cruel and unequal economy, everyone must join hands with their local labor councils until they can reclaim an America in which all work is treated with respect and all workers receive high enough wages to provide for their families. “We build it, we repair it, we make it work,” said Trumka, speaking of America. “How unjust can it be if we are not paid wages consistent with our contributions?”