I frequently blog about income inequality because it is a vital issue that affects all working people, not just those in low wage jobs. Today, President Obama called income inequality, “the defining challenge of our time.” The President referred to specific types of low wage workers in calling for an increase in the minimum wage. More importantly, he addressed the issue of decreased mobility: not only are more Americans being born into poverty, they seem to be stuck there. The President’s words are good and inspiring. However, during his first campaign, he told labor that he would stand with them and put on his walking shoes to be with them in the picket line. Did Obama march in Wisconsin or Ohio? No. Did he push through passage of the Employee Free Choice Act? No. Hopefully, these good words will lead to some positive action. Let’s remember Jesse Jackson motto: “Keep hope alive.”
There is nothing hopeful about the situation in Detroit. Judge Steven W. Rhodes, a federal bankruptcy judge, ruled that all should be for the creditors, nothing for retired workers who paid into pension funds. David Cay Johnston describes the situation as “stealing from the workers.” His reasoning is clear: Pensions are deferred wages. Would anyone think of taking money from an employee’s paycheck? That would clearly be theft. How is a promised pension any different? Johnson lists several examples of how politicians have played this game in the past. Detroit is just the latest, ugliest example of a trend that is also taking place in my state, Illinois, which is run by Democrats.
As Johnston examines the economic impact of Detroit’s bankruptcy, John Nichols considers the political impact. Citing a study by Demos, Nichols argues that Detroit’s serious financial problems should not have led to bankruptcy. Why did the city go bankrupt? So the Governor could appoint an unelected manager to strip assets that range from pension funds to the great collection in the city’s art museum. Nichols quotes Detroit’s new mayor Mike Duggan, who admits that he will only have power to the degree that it is given by the governor and his manager. The elected mayor is powerless. Nichols captures the problem in these words: “There is a lot more at stake in Detroit, and in Michigan, than one city’s balance sheet. Our understanding of democracy, itself, is being subverted.”
If President Obama is serious about addressing income inequality and mobility, he should start in Detroit. Turn the Justice Department loose on Governor Snyder and his “Emergency Managers,” who lord over cities that are populated mostly by poor African Americans. Clearly American citizens in the cities under Governor’s Snyder’s Emergency Manager system are not enjoying the rights promised under the XV Amendment. Detroit is a good starting point, Mr. President. Save democracy and promote opportunity in that great city.
P.S. David Sirota calls out the fraud in Detroit by discussing funds that can be found for a new hockey arena and $6 billion in subsidies, also known as corporate welfare.
Today is the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. While everyone correctly remembers Martin Luther King’s role as a civil rights champion, we should not forget his commitment to workplace justice. King often walked with striking workers. He preached the need for good jobs and good wages. Surely his voice would ring out today as an advocate for those low wages workers who are asking America to wake up. Tomorrow will be a day of strikes and direct action in the fast food industry. If Dr. King were alive, he would be standing with our brothers and sisters who labor at minimum wage jobs with no benefits. He knew that all Americans deserve equal opportunity – and a living wage.