Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
There is no more fitting Labor Day message to read and think about than the one given by Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. In the last part of his speech focusing on working people, he had this to say:
“Tomorrow is Labor Day. Labor Day in this country has never been a class holiday. It has always been a national holiday. It has never had more significance as a national holiday than it has now. In other countries the relationship of employer and employee has more or less been accepted as a class relationship not readily to be broken through. In this country we insist, as an essential of the American way of life, that the employer-employee relationship should be one between free men and equals. We refuse to regard those who work with hand or brain as different from or inferior to those who live from their property. We insist that labor is entitled to as much respect as property. But our workers with hand and brain deserve more than respect for their labor. They deserve practical protection in the opportunity to use their labor at a return adequate to support them at a decent and constantly rising standard of living, and to accumulate a margin of security against the inevitable vicissitudes of life.
“The average man must have that twofold opportunity if we are to avoid the growth of a class conscious society in this country.
“There are those who fail to read both the signs of the times and American history. They would try to refuse the worker any effective power to bargain collectively, to earn a decent livelihood and to acquire security. It is those short-sighted ones, not labor, who threaten this country with that class dissension which in other countries has led to dictatorship and the establishment of fear and hatred as the dominant emotions in human life.
“All American workers, brain workers and manual workers alike, and all the rest of us whose well-being depends on theirs, know that our needs are one in building an orderly economic democracy in which all can profit and in which all can be secure from the kind of faulty economic direction which brought us to the brink of common ruin seven years ago.
“There is no cleavage between white collar workers and manual workers, between artists and artisans, musicians and mechanics, lawyers and accountants, and architects and miners.
“Tomorrow, Labor Day, belongs to all of us. Tomorrow, Labor Day, symbolizes the hope of all Americans. Anyone who calls it a class holiday challenges the whole concept of American democracy.
“The Fourth of July commemorates our political freedom—a freedom which without economic freedom is meaningless indeed. Labor Day symbolizes our determination to achieve an economic freedom for the average man which will give his political freedom reality.”
No President today could give that speech honestly, and the evidence suggests that it was more wishfulness than reality when Roosevelt delivered it. Still, American political attitudes are very different 74 years later while Americans suffer through the Great Recession, worried that it may become a double-dip recession or worse. Our politicians (for the most part) are more concerned with helping the wealthy, those who make their money off of property (both real property and financial property), than with those who labor with their hands, bodies, and minds–those I refer to as “working people” or the “working class.” At least, during the 1930s, in response to the Great Depression, there were jobs programs that employed Americans to build the nation’s infrastructure and parks for the public to enjoy, to create art for our edification, and to document our history for posterity.
Our government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” has done nothing to stem the stream of jobs being sent off-shore by the wealthy capitalists and corporatists. The wealthy have been allowed by the government they control to prevent working families from getting adequate health care through their insistence that health care be treated as a commodity just like television sets or corn, rather than as a service vital to life. For most people, health insurance is essential for access to the health care system in this country. It is as essential to their economic well-being as are roads to allow them to get to jobs, yet the wealthy and their politicians prevent access unless they can get wealthier off of it.
How many city council members or county commissioners ask questions about worker health benefits of those seeking government handouts to create some new economic development opportunity with taxpayer subsidies? If any do ask such questions, they must ask behind closed doors because I don’t hear or read about them in the news media. If local politicians aren’t looking out for the workers, they must be focused on the wealthy, who get wealthier from the government handouts supported aggressively by chambers of commerce and economic development groups.
Over the past fifty years, the wealthy have succeeded in having their taxes reduced dramatically. When I was a child during the “I like Ike” 1950s, the wealthiest among us paid taxes in the 92% tax bracket. Now, the highest tax bracket is 35%, and no one pay social security taxes on anything earned above $106,400 a year. But most working people pay social security taxes on all of their income.
The wealthy applauded when Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers for going on strike in 1981. Labor unions have been on a downhill slide ever since as the wealthy got control of the government’s labor union rule-making process to make it more and more difficult for working people to join together in the voluntary associations called unions to improve their economic lives and, thus, the lives of their families. Union-busting practices of major corporations like Walmart have kept their workforce underpaid, adding to the financial pressures on the workers’ families. No family-value conservative, wealthy or poor, seems willing to acknowledge that union-busting is an anti-family position that weakens the working class.
The wealthy have succeeded–with the help of Democrat and Republican administrations– in limiting the ability of the government to fairly regulate their most greedy, destructive behaviors, allowing the money managers, financiers, and global corporatists to run the American economy into a ditch for the average American. No one with a private retirement account invested in the stock or bond markets this past ten years has escaped unscathed as the corporatists manipulated the economy for their own ends. Every such person I talk to laments the loss of 25% to 50% of their retirement accounts over the last two major stock market crashes/recessions. And these include working people, whether they are in the trades, sales, or professions. Unfortunately, most who work for less than a living wage don’t have retirement accounts to worry about.
Roosevelt’s focus on free citizens, equal in status, is an important value for a democratic country, but not one that we have achieved. Far from it. Today, America is as divided by class as it was divided by slavery 155 years ago. Vast economic differences would make little difference if all working people had decent incomes, affordable health care, adequate time off for their families, assured retirement benefits, and job security.
The economic democracy that Roosevelt hoped for has not been realized as the greed of the financial classes has increased. Elements of the Tea Party recognize the disruptive effects of that greed, but their solutions solve nothing for the working class. Financial policies, tax policies, war policies, and social policies undermine economic democracy and make it impossible to achieve. The anger of the Tea Partiers can be a force for good, but it can interfere with clear thinking as well. And as long as the Tea Party is financed by such wealthy billionaires as the Koch brothers, it will not be a populist force in American politics. The government is not the Goliath wreaking havoc with the wealthy. It is the wealthy who wreak havoc on the rest of us, the government included.
Robert Reich recently summed up what this nation needs now to help working-class families: “We need massive public spending on jobs (infrastructure, schools, parks, a new WPA) along with measures to widen the circle of prosperity so more Americans can share in the gains of growth (exempting the first $20K of income from payroll taxes and applying the payroll tax to incomes over $250K, for example).” If the Tea Party were serious about getting America out of the economic ditch and supporting the working class, these are the sorts of ideas it would support.
Roosevelt may have hoped for a classless society, but that has not happened in the United States. So long as the institutions of government and finance are controlled by the wealthy class, the working class will not prosper. What is good for the working class is good for the country, but the same cannot be said for what is good for the wealthy class. We need to elect leaders who understand this and who will implement public policies that create a strong working class. When that happens, we will have achieved Roosevelt’s “economic freedom” and have something to celebrate on Labor Day.
© San Marcos Freethought–Lamar W. HankinsEmail | Print