Richard Trumka: The choice we face Nov. 4

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (right) will speak in Minneapolis Feb. 20.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (right).

Almost no one in America is satisfied with the imbalance of our economy. We’re working harder and harder for less and less.

This isn’t a partisan opinion. All across this country, in poll after poll after poll, we hear self-described Democrats, independents and Republicans say, “We want an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few.” Three out of every four voters think we should raise the minimum wage. Nearly 70 percent of working-class Republicans say, “It shouldn’t be this hard to support a family.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. The economy is not the weather. It doesn’t simply happen to us, nor does it change in two days – or two hours, depending on where you live.

Here’s the good news. A growing number of people have begun to realize that our economy is shaped by rules created in Washington by elected officials, rules that pick winners and losers, rules that have picked working people to lose again and again and again for a long time.

[Click here to join other East Metro union members who are helping get out the vote for labor-endorsed candidates.]

Yet those who keep rigging the American economy for the rich and powerful have noticed the changing American electorate, too, and they have turned up the pressure to divide working people and to go after the things we hold most dear.

Working families face politicians backed by right-wing billionaires who want in the name of “free markets” to gut Social Security, prevailing wages, Medicare and Medicaid, job safety, gender equity, decent public education funding, public lands and practically everything else working families rely on.

These politicians think nothing should blunt the cold, hard edge of the marketplace. If you’re too young, too old, too poor, too sick, too anything, it’s just tough luck.

Here’s the really bad news. These far-right politicians know their values are not majority values, and that’s why they scheme to shrink our democracy, to cut back our ability to exercise our rights as Americans. That’s what voter ID laws do. That’s what restrictions on absentee ballots and early voting do. That’s what gerrymandering does.

These politicians use division to win elections. Sometimes they say public workers are the problem. Or they claim immigrants are the problem. Or skilled construction workers. Or welfare recipients. Or retirees. Or union workers. Everyone except the millionaires and billionaires, whose compensation has tripled over the past 30 years, while the rest of us are lucky if we’ve broken even.

Here’s the choice we face. We can decide not to be pushed to the bottom. We can choose to elect leaders who will restore fairness to our economy and invest in the things that matter to us, things like education, jobs, infrastructure and our future. Better yet, those investments can be made by doing away with tax cuts for people who don’t need our generosity, like the billionaires and CEOs who routinely avoid contributing to our country’s bottom line.

Don’t misunderstand me. This is not about political parties. Not every Democratic politician is a champion of working families. Nor is every Republican an enemy. But these days, too many Republicans are right-wing extremists.

All across Minnesota, and as we’ve seen from fast food workers and Walmart workers and even some self-described Tea Partiers, a new kind of populism is on the rise. It’s not an easy thing to define, but it is very real, and it is reshaping and will reshape America. As working people, the election this fall is an excellent opportunity for us to shape this change.

Working people want raising wages. It’s a popular idea. Imagine a world where the gap between the rich and the rest of us starts to shrink. Imagine the boost to manufacturing when millions of working people have the money – not the credit but the money – to purchase the things we want and need.

Imagine it, but don’t dream it’ll pick up like a fresh breeze. We’ve got to make it happen.

So what will you do? It is up to each of us to help bridge the gap for those who share our values but who don’t yet see how our interests coincide, who don’t yet see that jobs and rainfall are fundamentally different. We can create jobs, and, together, we can register and educate more working-class voters. We can turn frustration into stubborn action.

We’ve already started. Let’s keep doing it. All of us together.

– Richard Trumka, who comes from a small town in Southwest Pennsylvania, is the president of the nation’s largest federation of labor unions, the AFL-CIO.

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