Last week, Republican Convention delegates cheered as known-outsourcer Mitt Romney feigned empathy for working Americans who “lost that job that paid $22.50 an hour with benefits, [and] took two jobs at 9 bucks an hour and fewer benefits.”
I was so. angry. “What is wrong with us? How can we be this comfortable accepting, even applauding, one of the people directly responsible for this kind of blatant injustice?”
Similarly outraged, a friend sitting next to me asked, “Instead of asking if we’re better off today than we were four years ago, we should be asking if we’re better off today than we were thirty years ago.”
An excellent question. Here’s another: Do you take eight hours for work, eight (full) hours for rest, and another full eight hours “for what you will”, every single weekday? If you’re one of the millions of Americans who are currently anxious and overworked, the answer is no. And if you’re one of the millions of Americans who is unemployed or under-employed, working an unpaid yet full-time job just looking for work, the answer is also no.
As easily as we forget or ignore our history, we as a society tend to realize even less that we are also living through history, and making history on a daily basis. And right now, regular people are living the effects of a thirty-plus year reversal of the victories won by working people before us. Working Americans are less organized and powerful than we have been in generations, because a tiny group of political and economic elites have undermined our ability unite and negotiate for fair hours, pay and benefits.
Yet even as we experience obscene income inequality, with most American households requiring two or more working adults to maintain the standard of living just one could provide decades earlier;
even as middle-aged workers lose those “$22.50 an hour jobs” and spend an average of nine months finding– when lucky– one, or two, or even three replacement jobs that pay much less;
even as half of our country can be accurately described as poor or low-income, and even people with jobs still make so little that they qualify for public assistance and struggle to feed, clothe and care for their children;
even as many of us, from all walks of life, rely on drugs– pharmaceutical or otherwise– in order to rise and stay awake, remain even-tempered throughout the day, relax, then sleep at night, literally medicating ourselves just to tolerate the grind of daily life;
even as younger workers graduate with unprecedented amounts of educational debt, and work jobs whose salaries are worth less than the amount of that debt or their tuition itself (again, when we can find jobs at all);
even as a growing number of us have credit card debt not because we want to live beyond our means, but because the cost of just living is beyond our means;
most of us still look at Labor Day as a nod to stuff that happened in the past– if we remember why we observe this holiday at all. Too many Americans buy into the disinformation that makes unions seem like an outdated thing that’s no longer necessary, objectifying organized people as an abstract concept or set of ideas, instead of flesh-and-blood humans cooperating in order to earn fair pay for hard work, experience safety, dignity and fairness on the job, and to advocate for laws and policies that make all of us safer, healthier and freer at work and throughout the rest of our lives.
Worse, too many of us allow ourselves to be shamed into silently accepting this sad state of affairs, blaming ourselves (or others less fortunate than ourselves) for being unable to win a rigged race. We allow ourselves to be pit against one another, employed separated from unemployed, non-union member versus union member, forgetting that as more people organize, that pressures other employers to raise pay and benefits to attract and keep employees, union or not– and forgetting that if we’re not satisfied with the way things are in any area of our lives, we have the power to come together and change them.
Remember: History is not something that just happens to us. History is a collection of the decisions people make and the actions people take. The present reflects the will of whoever decided and acted most effectively in the past, as the future will reflect the will of whoever decides and acts most effectively right now. In our recent past, it wasn’t working Americans, but moneyed special interests who decided and acted most effectively.
Are we better off today as a result?
Right now, we have a choice. Will the future reflect the will of people like the Koch Brothers or corporate interest groups like ALEC, who use their wealth to buy legislators and laws that prioritize their profit over our rights at work and beyond? Will it reflect the will of people like Philip Anschutz, who fund organizations and mass media that coax us into accepting their hateful and divisive views of our fellow human beings? Or will it reflect the will of everyday people who once again remember that when we think, speak and act for ourselves– not just as individuals, but collectively– we can build a better world?
Note: When I say we have a choice, I don’t just mean voting in November (though if you’re an Average Jo(e) who’s undecided or thinking about sitting out this election, be really clear that while President Obama is far from perfect, Koch-funded Mitt “I like to fire people” Romney does not have your back).
I mean we have choices to make in all aspects of our social and economic lives, from being informed and active in shaping our local and state governments as well as our federal one, to being informed, active and united in shaping our working lives, which affect how we live when we’re not on the job. Our past (and current) history is full of awe-inspiring examples of what everyday people can accomplish despite incredible odds, from the young working women who lost their sisters and friends to a factory fire but organized to win crucial workplace safety protections that would protect all of us for generations to come; to the organized workers who pushed to get kids out of dangerous factories and into school; to the united teachers marching and working with the broader community for better public education right now.
If you’re someone who’s dreading going back to work tomorrow as your three-day weekend draws to a close, remember that everyday people just like you somehow figured out how to make that weekend–among many other benefits we shouldn’t take for granted– possible.
Then remember that you are just as capable as they were, if not more so, and that whatever you’re facing can be overcome.
You have power. Together, we have even more power. Let’s use it.