A corporate CEO, a union member and a tea partier are sitting at a table with a plate of a dozen cookies. The CEO takes 11 cookies and wolfs them down. Then he turns to the tea partier and says, "Watch out for that union guy. He wants part of your cookie."
It's a joke that has billionaires like the Koch Brothers - who fund tea party groups through Americans for Prosperity - and their errand boys Dick Armey of Freedom Works and Karl Rove of American Crossroads laughing all the way to the bank.
As the economic crisis deepened and working people lost their jobs, homes, and savings, these guys used corporate money to deflect growing anger away from Wall Street, banks and mortgage lenders and onto government and public workers.
State and local budgets were clobbered by a crisis created on Wall Street. State tax revenues fell 13 percent from 2007 to 2009. These losses, combined with increased demand for services by working people suddenly in need of help, produced an average annual budget gap of $140 billion, or 21 percent of all state spending commitments. Corporate taxes in states have declined by $2.5 billion in the past year; corporate profits were $1.6 trillion (28 percent) in the third quarter of 2010.
Public workers didn't create this mess, but they are being asked to clean it up. They are our neighbors, friends, and relatives. If their collective bargaining rights are eliminated, if their wages and benefits are pushed down, private sector workers will be next. Private sector workers have, in fact, already been victimized by the same people who now attack public workers.
From 1950 to 1980 the average income of 90 percent of Americans rose by 75 percent, from $17,719 to $30,941 (in constant 2008 dollars). Manufacturing accounted for 53 percent of the U.S. economy. As recently as 1977, 88 percent of private sector workers had defined benefit pension plans. Unions represented 36 percent of non-agricultural workers in 1950 and as recently as 1975 unions represented 25 percent of the non-ag workforce. The wealthiest Americans paid 70 percent in taxes into the 1970s.
American industry flourished between World War II and the Reagan era and the middle class was firmly established. More people were able to own homes, send their kids to college, and retire in dignity. Living standards were high for workers without unions because non-union employers had to compete with unionized companies.
Since 1980, the average income of 90 percent of Americans rose by just $303, from $30,941 to $31,244 (again in constant 2008 dollars). That's less than $11 a year. Only 33 percent of private sector workers now have defined benefit pension plans. Unions represent just 12 percent of the workforce. The wealthy pay about 35 percent in taxes and the rest of us make up the difference.
Industrial jobs were only 39 percent of the U.S. economy in 1988, and by 2004 manufacturing jobs that paid a living wage were just 9 percent. Service jobs are now 90 percent of the private sector.
Corporate taxes have gone down 34 percent since 2000, while corporate profits went up 60 percent. Between 2001 and 2008, 40,000 manufacturing plants closed. In the past dozen years, six million factory jobs have been lost. These tax cuts did not pay for themselves, did not create jobs, and did not help the middle class.
The rich and their corporations have suppressed private sector wages, destroyed retirement plans, busted unions, shifted the tax burden onto the backs of working people, spent their tax savings to elect people who do their bidding, and moved millions of U.S. jobs to low-wage havens around the world.
Billionaires like the Koch Brothers put their personal wealth ahead of the well-being of their country. Sadly, they have convinced many working people to do the same, pitting neighbor against neighbor in a fight for cookie crumbs. They screw private sector workers and then point a finger at public workers and say, "They're taking your money."
Private sector workers have more in common with public workers than they do with the rich and their corporations. Working people need to organize into unions, mobilize against corporate corruption and class war, and agitate for progressive change. We need to elect genuine economic populists who will fight for real tax fairness, safeguard Social Security, demand a moratorium on foreclosures, provide Medicare for all, help small businesses to grow, and create a massive jobs program to rebuild the nation's infrastructure.
The corporations have the money, but we have people power to take back what belongs to us. Solidarity can win economic justice.
Michael Funke is former organizer for Central Oregon Jobs with Justice. He lives in Bend.