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Get Busy Living, or Get Busy Dying | The Nation

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Get Busy Living, or Get Busy Dying

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As I was writing this speech late a few nights ago, the movie The Shawshank Redemption came on TV. Knee-deep in economic data and stories about the recent legislative session, I heard Morgan Freeman's distinct baritone voice utter that haunting phrase: "Get busy living, or get busy dying."

Editor's Note: Author and political organizer David Sirota spoke May 18 at the Montana AFL-CIO Convention in Butte, Montana. Here's the transcript, part of the ongoing Moral Compass series, focusing on the spoken word.

About the Author

David Sirota
David Sirota is a journalist, nationally syndicated weekly newspaper columnist, and radio host. His weekly column is...

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I tried to keep focused on my work, but the phrase kept going through my head. "Get busy living, or get busy dying." And I finally realized why: Because it's not just some line in a movie. It is a message for the middle class, the labor movement and, really, the entire country precisely at this moment, and our decision to either get busy living or get busy dying will be looked back upon by generations to come.

We are, right now, in the middle of a class war--one that threatens to destroy the social contract that has made this country what it is today. The statistics are grim. Today, American workers' take-home pay represents a smaller share of the nation's total income than at any time in the last forty years. At the same time, corporate profits as a share of national income are at an all-time high. In all, the top 1 percent of Americans--those who make on average $1 million a year or more--owns a larger percentage of the nation's wealth than at any time since the Great Depression.

None of this, of course, happened by itself. These trends occurred at precisely the same time our government threw its lot in almost exclusively with those at the top. Consumer protection and environmental laws have been decimated, as corporate lobbying has become a multibillion-dollar industry. At a time of war and deficit, we have upcoming federal tax cuts that will hand roughly a half-trillion dollars to the wealthiest 1 percent--tax cuts for millionaires are larger than the annual income of the average American household.

And labor laws have been weakened, creating in many cases the modern-day version of the turn of the twentieth century, where employers openly busted unions with brutal tactics. Whereas we once experienced the brutal tactics of mine company owners at Cripple Creek, Colorado, we now experience the brutal tactics of Wal-Mart thugs at Loveland, Colorado, where they recently broke the back of a fledgling organizing campaign. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration--the government agency that enforces workplace safety laws--has seen its budget slashed to the point where it would take the agency 108 years to inspect every work site under its jurisdiction. That has meant real consequences in this region. As the Associated Press reported last month, Wyoming and Montana had the worst records in the nation for workplace safety in 2005. Nonetheless, the debate over these issues continues to move to the right. It is now considered "controversial" for lawmakers to even consider pushing a law like the Employee Free Choice Act, which helps guarantee workers the right to join a union without being harassed and intimidated by employers.

Whereas the Pinkerton Agency fueled fear in the hearts of workers during the first Gilded Age, in this second Gilded Age we are living through, we have a cottage industry of union-busting law firms and PR agencies that have undoubtedly helped us reach a point where today more than 20,000 workers a year are demoted or fired just because they try to organize a union in their workplace. The only major difference between the current era and the past is that today, this anti-union industry is connected to many top politicians--not just of the Republican Party, the traditional home of Big Business, but also of the Democratic Party. As just one example, you may have read that Hillary Clinton's chief campaign adviser moonlights as the head of a PR company that specializes in helping companies manage their anti-union campaigns.

So this is a class war, replete with its own casualties--whether they be job losses, wage stagnation, destroyed communities or death. Yes, you heard that right--death. Today, with unions under attack and workplace protections often completely eliminated, the government reports that roughly 5,500 people die every year on the job--more deaths than 9/11 each and every year.

The problem, of course, is that the term "class warfare" has been used as an epithet by those actually waging this war. Flip on C-SPAN when Congress is in session or the public access channel when the legislature is in session, and you'll inevitably hear a right-wing conservative berate as "class warfare" any proposals to make sure the economic benefits that this country generates are distributed more equally.

Standing here surrounded by the rich history of Butte, we know that Montana has long been at the forefront of this class war. And this state--perhaps more than any other in the country--is now playing a critical role in fighting back.

In the legislature this year, we saw something truly extraordinary. This state, thanks to its governor and its Democratic legislators, decided to fight back on taxes--it decided, in other words, to get busy living. Whereas Democrats in many other states try to avoid the tax issue altogether, Democrats here went on the offensive, proposing a property-tax-cut package that targeted its benefits squarely at the middle-class folks who live in this state, paid for by strengthening tax enforcement on out-of-state corporations that have been treating Montana as a subservient colony for the better part of a century. This is especially true when it comes to taxes: As Senator Jim Elliott discovered a few years back, roughly half of the Fortune 500 companies doing business in Montana pay less than $500 a year in taxes.

The beauty of the fight Democrats picked was that it exposed the right-wingers for what they are: theocrats, whose religion is the class war. Over the course of ninety days, and then another six days, it became clear that beneath all the fights about spending levels and budgets, Republicans were forcing government to the brink of a crisis over the tax proposal. Not only did they oppose tax cuts aimed at the middle class, not only did they fight to kill the provisions closing tax loopholes for out-of-state corporations, but they fought for large tax cuts for wealthy out-of-state corporations. They were so committed to their fight, they actually forced taxpayers to pay $38,000 a day for the special legislative session to try to get their way--all while claiming they were focused on saving taxpayer money.

While Democrats did not ultimately get everything they asked for, their agenda merged from the contentious special session largely unscathed, reported the Billings Gazette. Their victory, of course, is more than just the middle-class tax cuts and new investments in education they achieved for this state. As the national conservative movement well knows, what happened in Montana was groundbreaking. For the first time in ages, a heartland state declared war on the class war.

This backlash has been building for some time. Mike Mansfield and Pat Williams were great icons of the kind of populism this region has long been known for. When I first came out to Montana in 2000 to work for Brian Schweitzer, observers in Washington, DC, were saying it was crazy to think a populist could make a race out of a Senate contest in a Republican state like Montana. And even though we came extremely close that year, many of the same observers said the same thing when I came out here in 2004. Now, with a Governor Brian Schweitzer and a Senator Jon Tester, these armchair navel-gazers aren't saying such things anymore.

Moving forward from the legislature, those of us here in Montana committed to the cause of working men and women in this country have an incredible opportunity with our senior Senator Max Baucus. He chairs the Senate Finance Committee--arguably the most powerful committee when it comes to fighting or engaging in the class war.

We now get to call Max "Mr. Chairman," as we should--but as Max himself would probably agree, that chairmanship isn't his; it belongs to the people of Montana--which means the 900,000 of us who are privileged to live in this state and who employ Max as our senator--who have arguably one of the most important seats at the world's economic table.

We should feel fortunate that since being elevated to chairman this January, Max has listened to the Montana State Senate, which overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan resolution asking him to reject President Bush's request to reauthorize fast-track trade authority--the authority that Presidents have used to do the bidding of K Street lobbyists and strip out all labor, wage, environmental and human rights provisions from trade deals. To date, Max has refused to move fast-track through his committee and he should be congratulated for that. No version of fast-track should be acceptable to any member of Congress.

To understand why fast-track and the trade issue in general are so important to Montana, we have to think both of what we have here in the state and what we could have. Trade policy that forces Americans to compete with slave labor or with countries that have no environmental protections or with nations that do not allow unions forces us into a race to the bottom. It puts a premium not on raising wages, bettering our environment or strengthening worker rights but on slashing wages, gutting environmental protections and busting unions. Workers know that with a trade policy that has no protections, if they try to fight for their share of economic benefits, companies can just say "See you later." And Big Money interests know how to leverage that fear. As Cornell University researchers documented, immediately after NAFTA was passed, corporations began loading equipment onto trucks marked "Mexico" outside of factories whenever labor disputes sprang up.

We also know that our current trade policy prevents jobs that don't yet exist from ever being created--our corporate leaders all but admit this. Those of you who were at the recent economic conference here in Butte may remember that when Bill Gates spoke to the assembled crowd, I asked him why Montanans should be as confident as he is that our current trade and economic policies would help develop high-tech, good-paying jobs in a place like Montana, when those policies reward countries that have low-wage, nonunion labor. I asked him this question because his local paper, the Seattle Times, had recently reported that internal Microsoft documents showed that midlevel managers at the company are being told to try to outsource as much work to India as possible--a practice that our trade policies encourage. Gates responded by admitting that Montana really shouldn't hold out hope that it will ever become a hub for high-tech jobs.

Yet, incredibly, Congress and the Bush White House seem to be moving forward with a package of new trade deals that once again fail to include the basic labor and environmental protections Democrats promised to fight for in the 2006 election--the protections that would actually help build our domestic economy and prevent our workers from having to compete in the race to the bottom. This deal includes a trade pact rewarding the Colombian government, a government that the Washington Post reports actively colludes with paramilitary gangs to execute union organizers.

Like NAFTA and China PNTR, this deal has been almost universally trumpeted by reporters and pundits, even though the actual text of the deal remains secret, even though rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers have been kept in the dark about the deal--and even though the deal has been roundly condemned not just by leaders of organized labor but by a diverse coalition that includes environmental groups like the Sierra Club, small business groups like the US Business and Industry Council and agriculture advocacy groups like R-CALF. Just like during NAFTA, we are being told that workers shouldn't worry, and that this deal is great for them--even though the people who made this deal are refusing to release the actual legislative language of the deal. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce's top lobbyists are telling Washington reporters that they have received "assurances" that any labor provisions in the deal will be completely unenforceable.

The lobbyists are probably correct, primarily because the deal does not give unions the same basic rights as corporations currently have. Right now, corporations can use trade deals to sue in international court to overturn local, state and federal consumer protection and environmental laws that they say cut into their profits. Americans have been forced to pay almost $2 billion in "damages" because of these suits. But in this secret trade deal announced last week--a deal that we are expected to believe is good for workers--unions are prevented from having the same rights to sue for the enforcement of labor laws. That means the enforcement of any labor or environmental protections will be left to the Bush Administration. That's exactly what corporate America wants, because we all know trusting George Bush to enforce protections for workers and the environment is about as smart as trusting Tony Soprano when he asks you to take a long boat ride.

If this all sounds familiar, that's because it is. As writer Matt Stoller eloquently put it this week, "This is surely a sequel from NAFTA: a slowing economy, a President named Bush, a decimated labor force, a neoliberal group in Congress, strong business coalitions, a Clinton running for the Democratic nomination promising to be on the side of the people while surrounding the campaign with corporate-allied operatives, a country looking for change, and a secretive trade deal on the table."

Both Max and Jon--like every other member of Congress--will be under enormous pressure from lobbyists, the Washington pundit class and corporate America to pass this new trade package and sell out American workers. But unlike in previous years, we are seeing an intense uprising. Rank-and-file lawmakers are joining with a coalition of groups representing millions of Americans to say that this deal is unacceptable. Just yesterday, five senators held a press conference to introduce legislation saying that if a proposed trade deal doesn't create jobs, raise wages and improve market access for American small businesses, that trade deal is terminated, end of story. In other words, a group of leaders is putting their foot down for the first time, and they are putting their foot down with the help of millions of ordinary Americans.

For this movement to ultimately be successful not only on trade but on all the other economic challenges we face both at the federal level and here at home, we will be required to make a choice: Will we get busy living, or get busy dying?

Will we as a movement say "enough is enough" and get busy helping our leaders stand up to Big Money interests and represent the middle class? Will we demand that our legislature continue to fight off the right-wing class warriors who dare to sacrifice middle-class tax relief and healthcare programs on the altar of tax breaks for out-of-state corporations? Will we make Denny Rehberg regret his vote against the Employee Free Choice Act, which allows unions to organize without the threat of corporate intimidation? Will we help Jon Tester fight off inevitable right-wing attacks when he works to make taxes more fair? And will we use every tool we have at our disposal to insist that Senator Baucus use the chairmanship we put him in to finally change our trade and economic policies to work for ordinary Montanans?

Or will we slink back in a corner? Will we be too afraid to make enemies? Will we try to avoid having our supposed "friends" get mad at us? Will we, in other words, get busy dying?

I'm sure many of you have read the book Labor's Untold Story. It is the story of a movement whose greatest moments were those where people joined together to get busy living, regardless of which politicians were made uncomfortable, regardless of the intimidation tactics of whichever Big Money interest happened to be abusing its power. This is a story that is gut-wrenching at times, tragic at others--but always inspiring and ultimately a critical part of what has made this nation so great.

This country needs a labor movement that continues to be unafraid to fight back, one that jealously guards the interests of those it represents, even if it makes people in power uncomfortable. Because here's the thing: Labor doesn't just represent its members, it represents the middle class, and we cannot afford to let etiquette or personal friendships get in the way of fighting back. To do so would be to disrespect the generations that came before us--the workers who every day went down those mine shafts outside this hall so that they could put food on their families' table and build this country from scratch.

I am optimistic that we are about to see a major resurgence of organized labor, and thus a reversal of the hostile takeover of our government. As I travel the country meeting with union organizers and union leaders, I see all sorts of signs that the labor movement is experiencing a resurgence. And the powers that be are taking note. As just one example, my good friend Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers, was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in a story about how the Steelworkers are shrewdly leveraging their power to make sure the middle class doesn't get trampled in Wall Street's merger stampede.

But make no mistake about it, the decision about whether to get busy living or get busy dying is one fraught with peril. Even a cursory look at our country's history shows that you can't make real change without making real enemies--whether they are lobbyists, executives, legislators, congressmen or senators. But we also know that the path of least resistance that may be lined with happy smiles and big campaign contributions and pats on the back by those in power is the way to get busy dying--the way to perpetuate what has become an intolerable status quo for millions of Americans.

I've struggled with the question of whether to get busy living or get busy dying in my own career, and in taking the path I have taken, I've certainly made some enemies, and have been far from perfect. But as I get older, I constantly catch myself thinking about what I will regret and not regret at the end of my life--and it haunts me to think I may regret not pursuing the cause of economic justice because I was too afraid to make enemies.

Such thoughts may be morbid, but they are necessary. And so I conclude by asking again: Will we get busy living, or get busy dying?

During that critical vote in the next legislature, will we pressure that key Democrat even though we were drinking buddies? When the new Congress begins pushing yet another NAFTA, will we demand in no uncertain terms that Montana's Congressional delegation stand up for our state even if they and their staffs get angry at us? When the power players in the nation's capital shove more tax breaks for millionaires, budget cuts to healthcare and eliminations of labor laws down our throats, will we make them feel pain on election day, even if it offends Democratic Party elders in Washington?

Will we, in other words, go all the way?

The answer has to be yes, and it has to be yes because as I said to start off, the stakes at this point are too high. It's time to stand up, it's time to make our voices heard, it's time to walk in the footsteps of past generations who refused to be intimidated in the face of the class war that is now upon us. It's time, in short, to get busy living--because America will cease to be the great country it is if we get busy dying.

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