American Middle Class is Against a Wall
By John Lewis and Gerald McEntee, Special to Viewpoint
Memphis Commercial Appeal
Posted April 2, 2011 at midnight
Published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal on Saturday April 2nd, in advance of April 4th Anniversary of King Assassination
We are witnessing a frontal assault on the American way of life, and the prime target is the hard-working American family.
Seven young protesters arrested in Nashville last month recognized how much is at stake, and they did not hesitate to stand up for the rights of working people. Their civil disobedience brings to mind another fight for civil rights: the strike by the 1,300 sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733, whose courageous actions gained national attention and brought the intervention of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Today, just as in 1968, we are living through a time of fundamental change. While Americans realize we must shift domestically to confront transformations in the world economy, we must not abandon our fundamental commitment to fairness in the process.
American workers -- like city of Memphis and school system employees, laid-off Toshiba and Bridgestone factory workers in Middle Tennessee, both union and non-union employees -- have made concessions to the troubled economy.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton has raised the possibility of one-day-a-month furloughs, layoffs of as many as 1,400 workers, early retirements and reduced pensions to balance the city's budget. Many employees in other cities now work four-day weeks. Others have accepted higher health insurance payments, taken pennies on the dollar for their investments after corporate bankruptcies, and work today for less pay than in decades before.
In fact, the incomes of working Americans have stagnated for at least a generation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employees are making less in wages than they were in the 1970s, after adjusting for inflation.
Working Americans have already sacrificed to salvage big business and respond to the decline in state and city revenue, but to what end? Yes, there are mounting deficits and some spending must be cut, but equitable solutions are needed to balance their sacrifice.
A recent New York Times article described the skill of giant corporations in avoiding taxes, like General Electric, which recorded $14.2 billion in profit worldwide in 2010 and $5.1 billion in America. GE will not pay one cent in taxes this year, and in fact will get a nice fat refund of $3.2 billion.
In the third quarter of 2010, corporate profits overall topped $1.6 trillion, the highest figure recorded since the government began keeping track 60 years ago, and corporate executives make four to eight times more today than they made in the 20th century.
If corporate revenues are higher than ever before, why are governments suffering? Because tax cuts and loopholes have allowed corporate citizens and a few Americans to pay less than their fair share.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker began his term by freeing some businesses from any tax burden and erasing the civic obligation of others. His total tax cut package adds a projected $117 million to the state's budget deficit over two years.
Now, he and other governors are looking to cut the lifelines of the most vulnerable as a "painful sacrifice" to balance budgets. It is the sick, the elderly, the disabled, schoolchildren, veterans and orphans who will pay. Regardless of the suffering these cuts will unleash, government executives are unwilling to close loopholes and repeal some tax cuts for the wealthiest few.
If GE received only half the tax refund it is due this year, could the $1.6 billion in savings help preserve government lifelines and relieve a few of the burdens on struggling American families? No one is asking that question.
In 1968, the sanitation workers of this city were also up against a wall. They were paid so poorly that many of them qualified for and received public assistance. This, coupled with unsafe working conditions, led to the deaths of several workers and pushed them to march in Memphis streets holding signs that said "I AM A MAN."
Working people today are defending more than their rights today. They are defending their human dignity. In Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida, Ohio and here in Tennessee, they are saying we are more than numbers on a worksheet, the blight of government programs or impediments to a profit margin. We are this nation's greatest resource.
In recent months, a broad constituency has emerged committed to stand up for middle-class families. As we commemorate on Monday the assassination of King, we must never forget that he died in Memphis defending the collective bargaining rights of AFSCME sanitation workers.
He fought to build a nation in which working people have an equal voice at the negotiating table, and everyone has a shared responsibility to contribute to the welfare of our society that neither wealth nor power can silence.
John Lewis is the U.S. representative for the 5th District of Georgia. Gerald McEntee is the international president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).