We Built the Middle Class, and We Can Rebuild It | Commentary

Most members of Congress today are millionaires. Their wealth has increased 28 percent since 2007, while that of the average American fell 43 percent.

So when President Barack Obama told members of Congress during his State of the Union address to try living on $15,000 a year if they think it’s so easy, the lack of response was telling.

The smackdown was an uncomfortable reminder of how far out of balance our economy is and how many of our elected officials are benefiting from a system rigged to favor only the wealthy and powerful. It’s no wonder most lawmakers sat stone-faced after the president’s remark, perhaps hoping Americans wouldn’t notice this economic anomaly.

But we have noticed and we’re outraged. We are tired of being told that if we just work harder, we can get ahead when we know that hard work has very little to do with achieving success in a system that is rigged. There’s no guarantee anymore that putting in more hours at work will result in a raise or a promotion. There’s no guarantee that getting a college degree will result in anything more than crushing student debt.

A recent Oxfam study found the world’s wealthiest 1 percent is on track to own more than the rest of the world combined. The report said the 80 richest people in the world have more combined wealth than the 3.5 billion people at the bottom. This staggering disparity, the authors note, hits working people twice as hard. We have to make do with a tiny slice of the pie and, as the rich accumulate more, the pie itself gets smaller.

It hasn’t always been this way. There was a time in our not-so-distant past when poor Americans could work their way into the middle class. There was a time when people in the middle class could afford to buy a home, send their kids to college and save for retirement. Today, middle-class families must make a choice — a home, college or retirement. They no longer can do all three.

This fast-disappearing upward mobility was made possible by the American labor movement, which helped workers gain a fair share of the nation’s prosperity through collective bargaining and political activism. Unions were and continue to be the only organizations willing to stand up and fight for working people and the middle class. And it is unions that can get us out of the mess we’re in now.

While extremists in Congress refuse to raise the minimum wage, it is unions at the bargaining table who are hammering out contracts that raise wages for working people. As corporate lobbyists seek to eliminate regulations that protect workers, it’s the shop steward who fights for a safer workplace. When anti-worker governors come up with another scheme to steal pensions, it is union members who go door to door to warn the public.

The benefits to workers who form a union are concrete and undeniable. Unionized workers earn on average $207 more per week than their nonunion counterparts, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and are more likely to have employer- sponsored health care and access to a guaranteed retirement plan.

At a time when so many Americans are feeling beat down by an economy rigged against them, the peace of mind that comes with a good union job is immeasurable. Unions provide better wages and benefits, job security and a better standard of living.

Unions have the ability and the track record to rebuild the American middle class and help close the yawning divide between the rich and the rest of us.

Obama acknowledged as much in his State of the Union address, calling for new laws that make it easier for workers to join unions. No one should have to survive in our nation today earning only $15,000 a year.

The New York Times recently reported on a study that shows union workers are just plain happier, and no wonder. Not only do they earn more, but they’ve got a real voice at work. Unions are the agents of change that our nation so desperately needs.

Lee Saunders is president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

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