I originally wrote this article for the newspaper that Occupy Baton Rouge had been publishing. I never submitted it for publication, and I regret not doing so. However, after the most recent union busting activity taken in Michigan, I felt that I needed to publish it somewhere. The original article is below the orange peel.
On September 17, 2011 more than thirty years of American angst and anger finally boiled over, and Americans began taking to the streets to regain our voice and relevance on the American stage. Our protestations were in response to the growing inequality in our country. We took action because we were sick of watching our income disparity, personal debt, and poverty increase, while our political power, civil liberties, bargaining rights, and personal income decreased. The top 1% of American earners used their increasing income to buy politicians and create laws, and destroy regulations in order to insulate them from competition; effectively using capitalism to demolish capitalism. At the very same time, the other 99% watched as their speech was silenced by the power of money and greed. With the increasing income disparity we could never hope to compete on the same level as lobbies, corporate interests, and the 1%.
Over the past thirty years, the income of the top 1% has grown by 275%, while workers in the bottom 90% experienced income growth of merely 17%. Middle and working class wages have remained virtually stagnant over the past three decades, and some studies indicate that they have actually fallen after accounting for inflation. The income of an average American CEO is about 380 times that of their workers. This disparity, coupled with falling wages forces increasingly more Americans into multiple income households, increased debt, and fewer financial options. We in Louisiana experience the deleterious effects of this inequality more than most other Americans. Among other American states and territories Louisiana ranks last in per capita income, the Camelot index, and citizen wealth, while we are first in percentage of homeless children and veterans, rate of corruption, income percentage used towards rent, and rate of incarceration. As we find ourselves dedicating progressively more time to dealing with our financial problems, we must become less involved in civic and political activities. Not only are most Americans’ concerns being ignored by our elected officials, but we are voicing them less.
The common narrative of our income inequality is that those at the top are constantly attempting to gain an ever larger piece of the pie, and thus decreasing our share. We believe it is fueled by pure greed, and our corporate officers care very little for their employees. I recognize that this narrative may be true, but assigning it as the sole reason will cause us to disregard other reasons that we can effectively change. In our “capitalist” economic system wages are based off of paying an employee the lowest wages for which that individual will agree to work. Companies use wages to entice employees as well as corporate officers, however, the power to negotiate our terms of employment is vastly different. The pool for competent CEOs is relatively small, therefore, every corporation is in direct competition to hire the best, and most competent CEOs. If a company posts $10 billion in yearly profits, and is looking to hire a CEO that has shown the ability to increase profits by 3%, that CEO will have an annual worth of $300 million to the company. This is a very large amount of profit for the company, so economically speaking they must offer the income and bonuses necessary to hire this corporate executive. This advantage allows for CEOs to negotiate for increased wages, couple that with time and CEO income will rise exponentially. The working class does not share this negotiating advantage, a 3% difference in productivity between two employees means relatively little to those higher up on the corporate ladder. So even if you recognize your worth to the company, you have very little power to negotiate a raise relative to your productivity. The most effective way to increase the wages of productive individuals is to negotiate for them as a group.
Working class wages have fallen parallel to decreased union membership. In the mid-1950s American union participation was at 35%, fell to 20.1% in 1983, and is currently at around 11%. There is a direct correlation between union memberships and income level. Historically, unions have been an instrument for working class Americans to increase their wage negotiating power. It is far easier to deny a pay raise, health insurance, vacation time, and workplace safety standards to an individual than it is to a large group of employees. A single employee striking will fail to create a blip on a corporation’s profit margin, but an entire section of a company’s workforce doing the same will create a very noticeable decrease in production, thereby affecting the corporate bottom line. The Occupy movement is an example of how the power and voice of a group is far greater than that of a single individual.
Collective bargaining rights are vitally important to decreasing the income gap in America. By directly supporting collective bargaining rights and fostering an atmosphere of worker empowerment we can influence a far greater change in working wages than by solely targeting greed and corruption. Focusing solely on the matters of greed and corruption is counterproductive in our current economic system. This creates a moral argument, which holds very little weight in our systemically amoral economic model. You cannot use moral arguments against an economic structure which has a foundation built without functional morality. Explaining the immorality of a CEO’s pay to them is like describing colors to someone that was born blind. Working within the confines of our economic system we can introduce easier and more efficient change to the current income gap, instead of treading in the waters of morality. We can make real, direct, and meaningful changes through supporting our fellow workers, as the political machine seeks to pit us against one another. This movement has the ability to introduce change, but it also has the ability of losing relevancy if our actions are not focused and practical. In the words of Ernest Hemingway “Never mistake motion for action.”