"Thousands of Vermont state employees have done their part to help weather our state’s own storm by taking a pay cut. Both teachers and state employees accepted changes to their pension plans. It is always politically unpopular to talk about increasing taxes, but fair is fair."
Article published Mar 13, 2011
Race to the bottom
By Jes Kraus
The thousands of people who descended on Madison to protest Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on the middle class represent the American dream: hard-working state employees, teachers, firefighters and nurses who provide needed services to their neighbors and, in return, receive a stable paycheck and benefits. Their public service will never make them rich. They will not retire with millions in stock options or “golden parachutes.” They enjoy only the satisfaction of the ability to adequately support their families and retire with dignity.
No doubt, the last several years have been hard for many Americans, but how does this justify being angry with someone because they earn a living or enjoy a stable retirement? Isn’t that what the American dream is supposed to be about? Why isn’t there similar animosity toward the corporate greed that largely caused our economy’s collapse in the first place? Where is the anger at the outsourcing of millions of middle-class jobs and the reduction or elimination of stable pension plans in the private sector that once provided a predictable income in retirement?
It is no accident that the heyday of the American middle class — the time when the greatest number of people in our country were neither rich nor poor, but were able to earn a reasonable living and retire after they worked hard for most of their lives — coincided with the height of union membership. The creation of the middle class resulted from decades of union members fighting hard to improve their working conditions, wages and benefits. As a result of this fight, many Americans could, for the first time, provide for their families and enjoy a predictable income in their retirement.
As fewer and fewer people control more and more of the wealth in our country, the days when children could expect to fare better than their parents in life may be over. I worry that my daughter will not be able to afford to attend college without placing herself in insurmountable debt; that she will not be able to earn enough to buy a home or take an occasional vacation; that she will never be able to retire. The number of people who are able to enjoy these basic tenets of middle-class existence is shrinking rapidly. With the decline of unions in recent decades, the chasm between rich and poor has grown steadily, and has filled instead with animosity toward traditionally middle-class public employees: the sole remaining group with a significant percentage of union membership. Instead of working to bring more into the middle class by supporting fair wages and stable benefits, we are now engaged in a race to the bottom. The more we attack working people for their ability to earn a living, the further into the pit we descend.
To reverse this trend, we must hold corporations accountable. We cannot tolerate further outsourcing of middle-class jobs in the interest of profits, or continue to provide bailouts and tax breaks to the bad corporate citizens who destroyed our economy. We must support fair tax policies. Vermont’s most vulnerable citizens have already endured painful cuts to services.
Thousands of Vermont state employees have done their part to help weather our state’s own storm by taking a pay cut. Both teachers and state employees accepted changes to their pension plans. It is always politically unpopular to talk about increasing taxes, but fair is fair. Certainly, if the poor and middle class are being asked to help, the wealthiest Vermonters — those who have to worry the least about where their next meal is coming from or whether they will be able to afford their mortgage payment next month — should also be asked to do their part.
Gov. Walker’s antics in Wisconsin are not about a budget crisis. Just like here in Vermont, Wisconsin’s public employees were willing to do their part to help in a bad economy. But instead of accepting the unions’ help and insisting that everyone do their share, Gov. Walker is attacking not only unions, but millions of hard-working, middle-class Wisconsinites who desire only a stable income and predictable retirement. If Americans want to have any hope that, like past generations, our children will fare better than we have in life, we must all work together to stop the race to the bottom by supporting fair wages and benefits for working people, and we must begin asking everyone — including corporations and the wealthy — to do their part.