AFL-CIO President Trumka Hopes for Obama Call to Action
The conventional wisdom in Washington and in statehouses around the nation is that we cannot afford to be the country we want to be. That could not be more wrong.
We can and should be building up the American middle class – not tearing it down. We should be honoring the heroes of 9-11, not turning them into scapegoats for a partisan political messaging operation. We should act like the wealthy, compassionate, imaginative country we are – not try to turn ourselves into a third-rate, impoverished “has-been.” The labor movement hasn’t given up on America – and we don’t expect our leaders to either.
Last week in Tucson, President Obama called upon us to build a future that “lives up to our children’s expectations.” We cannot build such a future as isolated individuals – either morally or economically....
But here in Washington, we live in an Alice-in-Wonderland political climate. We have a jobs crisis that after three years is still raging, squeezing families, devastating our poorest communities and stunting the futures of young adults. Yet politicians of both parties tell us that we can – and should – do nothing. That is giving up on America....
We have a tax system that everyone knows is grossly unfair – allowing private equity billionaires like Pete Peterson to pay 15 percent rates while middle-class Americans pay 25 percent. We just agreed to give hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts to the rich. Yet Washington behaves as if record economic inequality is a force of nature, and says we cannot fund the basic functions of government – let alone invest to build the infrastructure of the future.
We are still a wealthy country, with per capita income that puts us in the very top tier internationally. But in the last 20 years, 56 percent of all income gains went to the top 1 percent of Americans, and more than a third went to the top one-tenth of one percent. That is one person out of every thousand taking a third of all income gains here in the United States. Meanwhile, the bottom 90 percent made do with only 16 percent of income gains. That is why we all feel so poor – because too much of our national income went to too few people.
Social Security Secure
In this topsy-turvy world, the same leaders who fought so valiantly to cut taxes for the wealthy turn right around and lecture us about the imminent bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare. So let me get this straight: We need to slash retirement and health benefits for the elderly because we are on the brink of fiscal crisis. But we can afford to squander hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for the superrich. Only at the Mad Hatter’s tea party does this make sense.
The truth is Social Security is financially one of the healthiest institutions in American life, and the most essential to our families’ economic security.
When we are reduced to competing to cut spending instead of deciding how to compete in the world economy and secure our future, then we are having the wrong conversation.
Outside the looking glass, the American people would never forgive their leaders for cutting Social Security or Medicare. Sadly, the chairs of the President’s Deficit Commission urged just that, as part of a package of proposed deep spending cuts and tax changes that would hit middle-class families hard. This approach, so popular in Washington, would lock us into a Japanese-style lost decade....
But too many of our politicians are doing the opposite of what works: destroying our public institutions, crushing working people’s rights and living standards, and failing to invest in education. We know this model, and we know where it leads – catastrophe.
Bet on Hope
This misguided and shortsighted approach is not just a Washington problem. In state capital after state capital, politicians elected to take on the jobs crisis are instead attacking the very idea of the American middle class, the idea that in America, economic security – health care, a real pension, a wage that can pay for college – is not something for a privileged few, but rather what all of us can earn in exchange for a hard day’s work.
And in some state capitals we see not just an attack on the middle class, but an attack on economic rationality itself. What else can explain governors like Mitch Daniels in Indiana and Scott Walker in Wisconsin rejecting highspeed rail through their states?
Turning their backs on jobs, turning their backs on their own state’s future. Betting on misery and anger, rather than hope and progress – and common sense.
People who live in Wonderland may not have noticed, but there is a lot of work to be done here. While one in five construction workers is looking for work, we have a $2.2 trillion oldschool infrastructure deficit. We need to invest trillions more to build the 21st century infrastructure necessary for our nation’s and our planet’s future – high-speed mass transit, smart utilities and universal high-speed broadband.
The labor movement is ready for a call to action, a call to invest in our future, to create jobs, to be the country we can and must be.
We are ready for vision, and we believe in the President’s vision of a nation that is strong because we are just and true to our values. A vision for a national future founded on the profound truth that social justice and material prosperity are not competing values--they are necessary to each other. A truth that we have ignored as a country for a generation at a terrible cost.