On July 24, 1915, Western Electric, a company in suburban Chicago, held an outing for it workers. They were to be taken aboard the SS Eastland for a trip from Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana. The boat never left the Chicago River. It was poorly engineered and began rock. Frightened passengers shifted to one side of the boat, and it capsized. Of the 2,500 passengers on board, 844 drowned, several complete families. In an editorial to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the this tragedy, the Chicago Sun-Times asked why this disaster never received the attention of the Titanic. It concluded that part of the reason is social class: "The Titanic carried many passengers in society's top tier, while most of the those who died in the Eastland were factory workers and their relatives, many of them immigrants." We value the lives more of the rich and famous. Robin Leach taught us that. Long before him, Edwin Arlington Robinson explored the same theme in his poem "Richard Cory." I've been to the section of Bohemian National Cemetery where several victims of the Eastland disaster are buried. It's shocking to look at gravestones and see the names of parents and children who all died on the same day. As the Sun-Times pointed out, their lives had value and their deaths were tragic. We need to remember that when we hear politicians demean those who work low wage jobs, including the immigrants who often do work we exceptional Americans refuse to do.
A headstone from Bohemian National Cemetery marking a couple who died on the Eastland:
David Cay Johnston is one of my favorite writers on economics. He presents complex issues in language that is easy to follow and compelling to read. In a commentary published by Al Jazeera, Johnston notes that the recent growth in the U.S economy has not led to a growth in income reported on income taxes. In fact, average income reported dropped from $63,297 in 2012 to $61,668 in 2013. Johnson also presents a chart that tracks labor’s share of income since WWII. Since 2001, capital has been taking a bigger and bigger piece of the pie. He points to political factors, such as the outsourcing of factory jobs due to trade deals. He cites President Obama’s 2011 deal with South Korea as costing “thousands of manufacturing jobs.” He also demonstrates that all working people have been losers recently. While those making $250,000 or more a year did see a 4.8% increase in their reported income in 2013, their total income fell by 8.6% and average income by 12.8%.
What’s the moral of the story? The investor class is king. Workers are more productive than ever. Unemployment is down. Somehow, reported income is declining for all working people. As Johnston warns at the end of his commentary, “The American economy is getting bigger, but average incomes are shrinking. If that trend continues, it will eventually spell economic, social and political trouble for the country.” Johnston’s words frighten me more than ISIL. The real terror is economic.
While this month’s employment report again showed more jobs being created and a falling unemployment rate, wages dropped. According to past trends, wages should go up as labor becomes scarcer and companies want to retain productive employees. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich analyzes this situation in a recent blog post. Reich points to factors that can hold wages down even as unemployment shrinks. Two main culprits are the global economy and automation. Companies can offshore cheaper labor, and they can find new ways to let technology replace humans. Reich scoffs at those who call these factors “efficiency.” Reich concludes by blaming both large corporations and Wall Street for holding down wages. I’d agree with him and add one more culprit: spineless politicians who serve Wall Street and large corporations. Nothing will change until our politicians and laws provide some protection for American workers. Or, to put it another way, nothing will change until American voters elected politicians who represent the interests of working people.
Today’s Chicago Sun-Times features a story on United Airlines’ decision to outsource 600 jobs at 12 airports. According to a union spokesperson, employees who make $24 an hour will be replaced by those make $12 an hour. Who will be protected (at least for the time being)? Members of the union who are under contract. Outsourcing gives companies a way to cut costs through “efficiency,” which often means paying employees less. The union spokesperson cited in the article put it best when he defined outsourcing as “a race to the bottom.” Yes, big companies will save money. The outsourcing companies will hire people. But the engine of the economy consumers – working people – are being paid less. They won’t have money to buy airline tickets or cars or homes. Sooner or later, call it outsourcing, efficiency, or a race to the bottom, we will all pay the price for this kind of narrow kind of thinking. We can’t have falling wages and a healthy economy.
Lately I’ve been blogging about the disparity of wealth in the U.S. However, it’s a worldwide problem that had its best framing from an unusual source: Pope Francis. Since taking over from Pope Benedict, Francis has surprised many of us by speaking out in defense of poor and working people. This past Sunday, he put the problem in theological terms.
Speaking to unemployed miners in Sardina, the Pope put aside prepared remarks and spoke his heart. He said, “If there is no work, there is no dignity.” He challenged a world economic system that replaced God with an idol: money. The Pope then prayed to God to “give us work and teach us to fight for work.” Those words are powerful, especially in a world were workers are treated more and more as disposable commodities.
At what point is too much wealth too much and too much poverty too much? Pope Francis sees a world of haves and have not, and he is calling for change. May his voice – and his prayers – be heard.
“Enough is enough.”
Collected and focused in his anger, Senator Bernie Sanders (video) challenged President Obama to stand up for working people and the middle. Sanders fears that the President will again negotiate in a way that givens in to anti-worker policies that favor those who have the most, corporations and the wealthy. Even so, he wasn’t just speaking to the President. He also asked Americans who support what he is saying to go to his website and sign a letter that will be sent to the White House.
Senator Sanders – an Independent – is one of the few people in Washington who talks about the economy in terms of real people, not politics. Where many calculate how a message will poll, Bernie tells stories of real people who are suffering. He knows when to work with opponents and when to stand firm. Our President could learn a lesson from this wise, principled man.
Stand with Senator Sanders and sign his letter.
“Enough is Enough.”
Writing in In These Times magazine, Roger Bybee explores why working people have turned against Democrats. Unemployment fuels much of the dissatisfaction. But Bybee also indicts a media and money partnership that drives negative ad after negative ad.
While I lean left in my own politics, what we have seen in this election is good for no one of either party. Negative ad followed negative ad. Insult piled on insult. Promises have been made that cannot be kept. Government will be cut on the Federal and State level. Guess what that means? More job cuts. To some degree, I blame voters for not looking at what is best for them. On a larger scale, money rules politics, and politicians pick the votes. It’s a game – and the game is fixed.
All hail the top 5%. They rule. We work for their future, not ours.