The growing economic crisis has pointed to significant flaws in the theory and functioning of the U.S. economy.
After years of an ideological barrage from the political Right insisting that there is no need for social safety nets to protect those at the bottom, we are discovering that those at the bottom are increasing in number and that there is nothing 'trickling down' from up high to save them. We are watching increasing numbers of people lose their health insurance — if they ever had it — and increasing numbers of people relying on insufficient food stamps in order to eat.
A significant section of the population of the United States bought into compelling myths about an economy benefitting us all. And while these myths were being propagated, our living standards were dropping. Yet not everyone's living standard has been dropping; only the bottom 80 percent of the population.
To put it in stark terms, unless you are a millionaire or approaching millionaire status, your income and "wealth" have been either stagnating or dropping. Since the mid 1970s wealth and income have been polarizing very dramatically. Stark figures, such as the top 1 percent of the population controlling 35 percent of the wealth, are no longer viewed, even in the mainstream media, as doubtful. The entire notion of a fair distribution of society's wealth has been challenged by years of Reagan, Bush, Clinton (yes, even Clinton!!) and the younger Bush. And while this has been happening, misery has spread, and along with that a significant amount of despair.
There are two points about this that need to be made. The first, which is not the main subject of this commentary, is that Sen. Obama was correct when he spoke about encountering bitterness among much of the White working class. This is so obvious that it was shocking that it could be seen as controversial. This anger has been growing among White workers and White farmers going back to the mid-1980s, a point that Rev. Jesse Jackson observed and spoke to in both his '84 and '88 campaigns.
What has not been said is that Black workers have been bitter for a lot longer. The replacement of Black workers by more and more sophisticated technology, as well as the relocation of jobs from the major cities into more distant suburbs (and in some cases rural areas), has made the possibility of making a decent living less possible.
As organizations of working class people weaken — including but not limited to labor unions — it has become much more difficult to fight for wealth and income fairness. It is actually very straight forward. The upper 20 percent want to ensure that they not only control the process of work, but that they secure the lion's share of the wealth produced by those who work.
Black workers have, particularly since the 1930s, been especially loyal to and involved with labor unions. We recognized during the Great Depression that unions were the most successful means of demanding that wealth and income be divided on a fair basis. As a result, Black workers have played a key role in building and sustaining unions through the years. When the economy started to shift, however, many of the key industries where there were significant numbers of unionized Black workers (e.g., auto, steel) vanished or relocated. While a considerable number of Black workers remain unionized (about 16 percent) the disappearance of these unionized jobs has contributed to a hollowing of our communities.
If we are going to challenge income and wealth inequality, we must join and build unions where Black workers can play an influential, if not leading, role.
The Service Employees International Union, for instance, has played an important role in a major organizing effort targeted at security guards, a sector that has a very large Black component. While this is important, we will need to go further. Retail, warehouses, not to mention public sector jobs in the South, are all places where Black workers can be found in large numbers, and the union movement needs to move on them, and in doing so must have our support.
Those in the upper 20 percent have, by and large, little interest in sharing the wealth. So be it. Now the time has arrived for us to stop blaming ourselves and demand redistribution. Labor unions can be part of the answer, particularly if Black workers have a major stake in leading them.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.