As Americans observe Labor Day, Senator Bernie Sanders called on Congress to adopt smarter trade policies, enact health care reform, and expand education opportunities to help working people. The senator also challenged President Bush's assessment of the economy. "President Bush repeatedly says the economy is ‘strong and getting stronger,' ‘thriving,' ‘robust,' ‘solid,' ‘booming,' ‘healthy,' ‘powerful,' ‘fantastic,' ‘exciting,' ‘amazing' and ‘the envy of the world,' " Sanders said, "and, to a certain extent, he has a point. The richest people in our country are doing phenomenally well. But what the president has got to understand is that not everyone in America is a millionaire or billionaire, and that millions of working Americans are struggling hard to keep their heads above water." The senator was joined at a discussion about economic realities confronting Americans and Vermonters by James Haslam, director of the Vermont Workers' Center, and University of Vermont Associate Dean Stephanie Seguino.
"On this Labor Day weekend, most American workers have not shared in the growth and prosperity they have been helping to create. For these families, there is no possibility for money left over at the end of the month. For them, there is a lot of month left at the end of the paycheck," Professor Seguino said.
Added James Haslam of the Vermont Workers' Center: "Labor Day has lost mush of its original meaning. A day once set aside to pay tribute to the achievements of working people now has more to do with shopping at big-box stores than with honoring the labor movement - the folks that brought you the weekend."
Senator Sanders pointed out that since President Bush took office:
- Nearly 5 million Americans have slipped out of the middle class and into poverty;
- 8.6 million Americans have lost their health insurance, bringing the total to 47 million.
- From 2001 to 2005, as the rich getting richer and the middle class shrinks, the top 1 percent of households saw a $183,902 increase per household income while the bottom 90 percent saw a $2,071 loss of total income. The top 300,000 Americans now earn nearly as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans combined.
- Over 3 million manufacturing jobs have been lost and the major auto companies are now threatening to leave the United States if workers do not take a major wage cut.;
- 3 million American workers have lost their pensions;
- Home foreclosures are now the highest on record;
- The personal savings rate is below zero, which hasn't happened since the Great Depression;
- The real earnings of college graduates have gone down by roughly five percent from 2000-2004;
- Entry level wages for male and female high school graduates have fallen by about 3.3 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively; and
- Wages and salaries are now at their lowest share of GDP since 1929.
In addition, the United States today has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of any major country on Earth. In 2005, while average incomes for the bottom 90 percent of Americans declined by $172, the wealthiest 1/100th of 1 percent reported an average income of $25.7 million, a 1-year increase of $4.4 million. The top 1 percent of Americans received, in 2005, the largest share of national income since 1928. According to Forbes magazine, the collective net worth of the wealthiest 400 Americans increased by $120 billion last year to $1.25 trillion.
"Now, to me, that does not sound like a robust, booming, or strong economy," Sanders said, "and, the American people understand this very clearly." In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published last month, more than two-thirds of Americans believe the U.S. economy is either in recession now or will be in the next year.
As Congress returns from its August break, Sanders said, "it's clear that we have got to focus on the economic needs of the middle class and working families, and not just the wealthy and people.
He highlighted three areas he intends concentrate on a national health care program for all Americans; reform of our trade policies so that corporate America invests in this country, and not just in China and other low wage countries, and realignment of national priorities so that we adequately fund education, from pre-school to graduate school so that all Americans, regardless of income, can compete effectively in the global economy.
For her part, Professor Seguino added:
"Despite the fact that Americans are working longer hours and harder -that is more productively, wages are lagging. They are not receiving a proportionate share of the increased productivity. The wages of production workers has risen 3.5 percent since 2001. During that time, however worker productivity increased 20 percent. Much of the productivity growth fuelled profits of corporations, dividends of shareholders, and CEO pay. For them, this has been a golden era.
"For average working Americans, stagnant and falling wages have to be stretched still further. Rising house costs accompanied by a foreclosure crisis, steadily increasing costs of medicine and health care, and the rising price of oil mean the many who have worked very hard, are struggling to make ends meet. Many in fact simply do not make a living wage. A single parent raising one child in Vermont would have to earn $21.40 to meet the family's basic needs—to cover out of pocket health care costs, modest housing, food and transportation. This is almost 300 percent greater than the actual minimum wage in Vermont—already one of the highest in the country at $7.53 an hour. One out of four full-time workers earn less than a livable wage for a single person.
"The bad economic news weighs most heavily on women and people of color. Over one-third of women and 36 percent of people of color do not earn a livable wage in Vermont—double that of white men. How do families get by? They forgo necessities, such as health care. And they compensate by spending more time working. But this has led to a crisis of care. The longer work hours hurts the time parents have to spend with their children, helping them with homework. It puts them in a double bind if they must also provide care at home to elderly or ill family members. Nor are benefits rising to compensate for stagnant wages. In fact the opposite is occurring.
"The share of private sector workers with a pension dropped from 50.3 percent in 2000 to 45 percent in 2005.
"The share of people with employer-provided health insurance has fallen, so that the number of Americans without health care coverage is up to 47 million. That is 8.5 million uninsured Americans since 2000.
"If we used the measure official poverty—roughly $20,000 a year for a family of five, we find that 5 million more families live in poverty today than in 2000. Children remain, by far, the poorest age group. The poverty rate remains 20 percent for children under age six. For children in families of color, the poverty is more than double that of white children, at over 40 percent. This underscores that economic growth alone—especially when the benefits are not evenly shared—will not be enough to make meaningful progress in reducing poverty.
"Contrast the economic stresses felt by most working American to this golden era for economic elites. Those with incomes of more than $1 million a year garnered almost half the total income gains in 2005. And, ALL of the income gains in 2005 went to the top 10 percent of households, while the bottom 90 percent of households saw income declines."
And Mr. Haslam recalled the history of the labor movement.
"In 1882, when the first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City, workers were fighting for the eight-hour day because they believed people should have time to spend with their families. Vermont farm girls who had gone to work in the textile sweatshops in Massachusetts were among 30,000 women and girls - many of them immigrants - who rebelled in the 1912 ‘Bread & Roses' strike.
"Workers' action ended child labor. Free speech, the right to vote, the right to organize and public education for all were won through struggle. Barre granite workers' history shows us we had to fight for safe, dignified work lives. Winning improved consitions in workplaces and in our communities didn't come easy. In the face of deportations, physical and economic violence we overcame temporary defeats through solidarity and mobilizing the community to win economic justice. This is our history, which we do a great disservice to ourselves to ignore.
"Workers needed to organize then and we need to organize now."
To read more about the Vermont Workers' Center, click here.
To read more about Professor Seguino, click here.