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.”
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.