"The progress of human civilization," wrote the Englishman Thomas Carlyle, "rests in the better and better apportioning of wages to work." By that measure, this Labor Day marks a civilization that is in decline.
In 1993 -- the latest year for which information is available -- the Census Bureau reported that the inflation-adjusted incomes of the bottom 95 percent of American families had fallen since 1989. Those in the middle of the income spectrum -- neither rich nor poor -- suffered an average 6.7 percent loss -- about $2,648 a year. This occurs as the economy is growing, profits rising, productivity increasing.
Those losing ground are not merely the unskilled or the slothful. Real wages have been falling since 1979 for the three fourths of the work force that does not have a college degree. For male college graduates, real wages have fallen consistently since 1987. Recent college graduates are taking jobs paying about 6 percent less than the ones available five years ago.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that what distinguished America from the old world was the absence of the fatal concentrations of private wealth that so deformed Europe. Now the gap between the very rich and the rest of us would appall Jefferson. One percent of the people own 40 percent of the national wealth. Between 1977 and 1989, the top 1 percent of American families -- with incomes over $350,000 per year -- received 72 percent of the country's income gains, while the bottom 60 percent lost ground.
The proposed merger between Chase Manhattan and Chemical Bank to form the largest bank in America illustrates what lies behind these realities. Speculators in Chase Manhattan stock reaped billions from the merger announcement alone. The CEOs of the two banks will gain millions, much of it from stock options. Meanwhile, an estimated 10,000 workers in the banks -- from tellers to janitors, accountants to managers -- will be fired for no fault of their own. Many will be forced to accept jobs that pay less than they were earning only yesterday. Doing hard work for a large bank offered them no security whatsoever.
The speculators earn billions and are called geniuses. The executives earn millions and are called smart. The workers are dismissed as unlucky or unskilled. They are urged to get more education or to retrain themselves. No one can answer the obvious question: Education for what? Training for what?
The huge and growing gulf between rich speculator and workers in paycheck poverty is not an act of nature, nor the inevitable result of a global economy. Neither in Europe nor Japan are the differences so stark. This gulf comes from power. Power, writes Ernesto Cortes Jr., a remarkable organizer in the Southwest, "comes in two forms: organized people and organized money." What has happened in America over the past 20 years is that the power of organized money has grown and the power of organized people has declined.
Consider the priorities of the new conservative majority in the Congress. They have blocked any political reform that would put real restraints on money in politics. Not surprisingly, while they call for "shared sacrifice" to balance the budget, they leave unscathed the more than $100 billion a year spent on corporate welfare. Taxes are to be raised on the poorest workers -- by cutting back the Earned Income Tax Credit -- while the richest 1 percent get new tax breaks estimated to be worth an average of $22,000 per year.
Meanwhile, the banner of deficit reduction is used to mask a systematic campaign against working people. How else can one describe a program that features (1) attacks on income supports (food stamps, Medicaid, school lunches, Head Start, welfare, low-income housing); (2) attacks on worker protections (weaken the right to organize by cutting the National Labor Relations budget by 30 percent; weaken health and safety by slashing the enforcement budget for the Office of Safety and Health Administration; (3) attacks on consumer and environmental protections; (4) cutbacks in education and training funds -- particularly for the poorest students and for displaced workers.
When mention is made of the growing divide in America, conservatives are trained by their pollsters to decry "outdated class warfare." But a class war is being waged -- by the few against the many; the speculator against the worker; Wall Street against Main Street -- with government too often on the side of the money rather than the many.
The conservative embrace of organized money must be challenged by organized people. A new popular movement is needed to revive labor unions, to rouse the unorganized, to galvanize working people, and to take back the Democratic Party or launch a new one. What better way to celebrate Labor Day than to dedicate ourselves to that cause?
THE PROGRESSIVE POPULIST