BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.
Here we go again. No sooner does Barack Obama challenge John McCain on extending George Bush's expensive tax cuts for people at the top than cries go up of "Class War! Class War!" Look at this essay posted on the website of capitalism's op-ed page in the Wall Street Journal. It accuses Obama of a "class-warfare tirade" for a speech he made critical of "tax breaks for big corporations and wealthy CEOs."
Now, Obama's economic policies should get a full critique. As should McCain's. But, please, can we put aside that old canard spouted by Wall Street apologists every time someone calls for greater equity between working people and the rich? Truth is, there's been a class war waged in America for thirty years now from the top down, and the rich have won.
Here's the latest dispatch from the front page<—>this story, in the news section of the Wall Street Journal, about how some corporate executives have finagled lush payouts to their heirs if they die in office:
If Eugene Isenberg dies while still heading up Nabors Industries, his estate would get an additional $288 million dollars - that's more than the company's first-quarter earnings.
But it's less than the $298 million Brian Roberts would get from Comcast if the Grim Reaper comes calling on his watch.
Pity poor Ray Irani: His golden coffin wouldn't be quite as glittering. Occidental Petroleum would top off his estate's tank with a measly $115 million dollars.
Class war? Well, you don't see those fellows or their heirs adding an extra cup of water to their soup, diluting their kids' milk, and giving them carbonated soda because it's cheaper than milk. You can bet your Gucci slippers they're not lining up on the main street of a small town to get bread they can't afford to buy because the rise in gasoline prices forces a choice between food and fuel. And you won't find them borrowing money from their bosses just to buy gas to get to work, or abandoning their cars on the side of the road and walking away when the tank runs out.
What's happening to American workers is not the result of natural forces alone. No, it's happened because corporate and political powers connived to keep wages down while shredding their workers' safety nets. For some time now the Great American Wealth Machine has been cranking out jackpots for the people at the top and pushing working people further down the ladder. The growing divide, that roaring inequality, is the subject of this broadcast.
Consider this: For the past thirty years the productivity of American workers has increased by 76 percent. But their real hourly wages have risen less than two percent. So the paradox is that people are working harder but still falling behind. Take this young man we recently met in California in our report from producer Peter Meryash and correspondent Rick Karr.
RICK KARR: We'd like you to meet Jaron Quetel.
JARON QUETEL: I thought we had resolved this.
RICK KARR: He's twenty-eight years old ... and he's working hard for a better life.
JARON QUETEL: Ahh, muchas gracias.
RICK KARR: Quetel works a full-time job as a clerk at UCLA, one of California's most prestigious universities.
JARON QUETEL: "Ok. Hasta Manana. Take it easy. "
RICK KARR: He thinks that if you apply yourself in America, you should be able to make it into the middle class. But he says he's having a hard time making that happen.
JARON QUETEL: Working the best job I've ever had in my whole life, I'm still, I mean, I am a breath away from drowning. I'm $20 away from being on the street. I am one car payment away from being re-poed. I'm barely surviving. I'm leading a substandard lifestyle because I make substandard wages.
RICK KARR: Quetel's job pays just under thirty thousand dollars a year. Which doesn't go a long way these days, especially if you're trying to support a young son.
JARON QUETEL: This is $187 Sprint bill for the telephone. $30 bill for the gas. Gotta have gas. This is $160 car insurance note that comes every month, along with a $400 car note that has to be paid every month. When I do my budget, my gas budget for a week is normally $30 bucks. I'm spending on average $45 to $63 dollars. If I'm on "E," it takes $63 to fill up my coupe. That's crazy.
RICK KARR: With gas around four dollars a gallon, he has to drive abut twenty miles, round trip, every day to and from work and even farther to get to the trade school where he's studying to be a welder or to the odd jobs that he takes every now and then.
JARON QUETEL: If I wasn't trying, if I was a screw-up, if I was taking advantage of things, I couldn't complain, right? But what more can I do at this point?
JARON QUETEL AND PEOPLE MARCHING: "What Do We Want? Good Jobs! When Do We Want Them? Now!"
RICK KARR: What he could do, he decided, was draw attention to the tough choices and sacrifices that workers like him confront every day. Quetel's a member of a union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. So he joined members of his own and other unions to make their voices heard.
JARON QUETEL AND PEOPLE MARCHING: [cheering]
RICK KARR: In April, they marched through Los Angeles.
PEOPLE MARCHING: "We are the union! The mighty, mighty union!"
RICK KARR: Twenty-eight miles, from Hollywood and Beverly Hills down to the docks of the port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. The march included union members from actors and writers to janitors and teamsters.
PEOPLE MARCHING: "Teamsters!" "Teamsters!"
RICK KARR: The march was called the Fight for Good Jobs. It was organized by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and its goal was to call attention to just how hard it is these days to stay in the middle class or to join it.
PEOPLE MARCHING: [cheering]
RICK KARR: Some three hundred fifty thousand union members in the LA area are bargaining for new contracts this year.
PEOPLE MARCHING: "We will win good contracts in 2008!"
RICK KARR: But the marchers called attention to issues beyond wages and benefits. They stopped to rally at the historic Wiltern Theater, for example, and drew a crowd of nearly a thousand to call for better working conditions for the city's janitors.
PEOPLE MARCHING: Si, se puede!
RICK KARR: At a community center near the University of Southern California, they rallied for better housing for working-class Angelenos.
PEOPLE MARCHING: Everybody in, nobody out! Everybody in, nobody out!
RICK KARR: At a hospital in South Los Angeles, they called for universal health care.
PEOPLE MARCHING: Si, se puede! Si, se puede! Si, se puede!
RICK KARR: Near a center for day laborers, they called for better treatment for immigrant workers.
PEOPLE MARCHING: "Wal-Mart sucks! Wal-Mart sucks!"
RICK KARR: And at a Wal-Mart store, they rallied against the way the nation's largest private employer treats its employees:
PEOPLE MARCHING: "Don't shop at Wal-Mart! Don't shop at Wal-Mart!"
RICK KARR: Wal-Mart says that its average full-time employee earns 10 dollars and 83 cents an hour. That works out to twenty two and a half thousand dollars a year or, just over a thousand dollars above the official poverty line for a family of four.
MARÍA ELENA DURAZO: "That's bad for our community, that's bad for our kids, that's bad for the United States of America to have a corporation that doesn't treat workers with respect!"
RICK KARR: Nationwide, since two thousand, workers' median wages have been stagnant or even fallen.
SHARON POLK MARCHING: "My people! You gotta story. Tell the whole damn world, this is union territory! My people!"
RICK KARR: Take the example of marcher Sharon Polk, who works for American Airlines on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport, guiding planes to gates and handling luggage in the hold. Her union, the Transport Workers, agreed to wage and benefit cuts after the terrorist attacks of two thousand one slammed the airline industry. Right now, she says, the workers are trying to get their pay and benefits back to where they were seven years ago.
SHARON POLK: We had to do a concession contract. So we the workers gave up $1.6 billion in concessions. Just to keep our jobs. And so now we're in contract negotiation and we're tryin' to get back what we lost.
JARON QUETEL: "Hey, hey, ho, ho. Union busting's got to go! Hey, hey, ho, ho. Union busting's got to go!"
RICK KARR: Jaron Quetel's union is fighting for a new contract, too. It hasn't been making progress in its negotiations with the University of California, so recently, members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. Quetel says he works for one of California's top universities, but his wages are twenty five percent below what workers in similar jobs earn at community college. That means a lot of his colleagues have to work second and even third jobs.
JARON QUETEL: I just stopped working my second job at Best Buy so that I could, you know, fully commit to going to school. But, you know, I might have to opt out and go back to work again, you know, for the second job.
RICK KARR: A lot of workers need to hold more than one job to make ends meet. But that can take a toll on their families, according to marcher Tommy Munoz, who's a middle school teacher in a poor East Los Angeles neighborhood.
TOMMY MUNOZ: If the parent leaves at 3:00 in the afternoon just as the kid's getting home and doesn't come home until the morning so the kid barely sees 'em, I mean that takes a direct toll on the student.
RICK KARR: On the other hand, when parents can make ends meet with just one job...
TOMMY MUNOZ: ...those parents have time. And they're able to support their family without having to worry, without having to work two, three jobs. They're able to come home at a decent time. And in return those kids are doing well in the class.
PEOPLE MARCHING: "We're fired up and we don't have to take it no more!"
RICK KARR: But those kinds of jobs are increasingly rare these days in Los Angeles and nationwide. Longshoreman David Arian says he has one of those good jobs which means he was able to provide a better life for his kids.
DAVID ARIAN: My daughter works on the docks and my son ended up going to college, went to Berkeley, graduated from Columbia Law School...
RICK KARR: Arian's spent his whole life near the waterfront, born and raised near the port of Los Angeles in the community of San Pedro.
DAVID ARIAN: We just entered San Pedro. It's about 75,000, maybe 80,000 people. It's a working class community where most of the people here own their homes living a good life.
RICK KARR: You talk with some pride about this town, the fact that people own their own homes. Does the union play a role in that?
DAVID ARIAN: Well, as a result of the union, everything we got is because of the union. We can afford to send our kids to college. We can afford, you know, to buy homes. We can afford all the things that are necessary in society, you know, to have a decent living.
I mean, that's the way it should be in this country for everybody. We're sort of part of the working class that has succeeded. And we, you know, we wanna be a beacon.
RICK KARR: Union jobs like Arian's have been disappearing for more than half a century: Organized labor's share of the workforce peaked in1954 at just over one in three workers. Last year, just one in eight working Americans was a union member.
PETER DREIER: After World War II, the US economy prospered. And that prosperity was widely shared. And so, Americans' standard of living went up. People moved to the suburbs. They could afford to buy their own home. The first wave of health insurance benefits kicked in. More Americans went to college. People could afford to take a vacation for the first time. People had a secure pension. And all of that has been dismantled over the last 20 or 25 years, for this generation of America's working families.
RICK KARR: Peter Dreier, who teaches labor history at occidental college in Los Angeles, says union members aren't the only ones who benefit from organized labor.
PETER DREIER: A strong labor movement is actually good for the economy. It may seem counterintuitive. But a strong labor movement is pro-business. Why is that? Because people that make additional wages, higher wages, because they are in a labor movement, they spend that money in the local economy. And that local money gets recycled several times.
RICK KARR: Unionized workers earn about twenty-seven percent more than non-union workers in the same jobs, according to a study conducted in Los Angeles last year. By spending those extra wages, union members created more than sixty thousand jobs in the L.A. area.
PETER DREIER: You know, the best social program is a good job. If people have a good job that's secure, where they don't think they're gonna lose their job, that's exported to China or Mexico, if people have universal health insurance, if people can afford to go to the doctor, people can afford to send their kids to college, that's what a strong economy is. That's what a strong middle class is about.
RICK KARR: That was the message when thousands of workers gathered at the end of the march on the San Pedro waterfront.
MARÍA ELENA DURAZO: Even a worker in the lowest-paying position has a right to get by and support a family with a good union job.
RICK KARR: Jaron Quetel hopes his union can help give him a leg up as he tries to climb into the middle class. He says, between the tightening economy and his stagnant wages, he feels like he's one calamity away from the kind of desperate decisions he saw people around him make when he was growing up in inner-city Los Angeles.
JARON QUETEL: Because if you don't have the means, if you don't have some type of stability in your life that you can build off of to take a step forward, you're gonna go back. You're gonna take a step back. And all that's behind you is the worst that society has to offer.
RICK KARR: Instead, Jaron Quetel hopes that he'll be able to live out his own version of the American dream.
JARON QUETEL: Very simply: Nice house, right? Two stories, so my kid can run up and down the stairs. Okay? I want a two car garage, my car and my wife's car, okay? Front yard, back yard. You know, I don't even need the picket fence. You know what I mean? Believe it. Believe it.