After instituting a war on poverty as part of his Great Society, President Lyndon Johnson squandered this drive to eliminate poverty in the world's most affluent nation to pursue a brutal war against the people of Vietnam.
President Ronald Reagan opened war on the poor, employing a myth about a "welfare queen" who had 80 names, 30 addresses and 12 Social Security numbers. He accused her of collecting benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands, stealing $150,000 from the American taxpayers. The person he was referring to had been convicted of using two aliases to steal $8,000. Reporters repeatedly presented him with the facts, but President Reagan continued to ply his version to push a policy of punishing the poor for being poor.
Not satisfied with attacking the poor, President Reagan fired more than 12,000 striking air traffic controllers. These public-service workers were members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. As government employees, they were striking illegally. Other government workers had struck without being permanently replaced, but President Reagan had an agenda. His action sent a message to the private sector that they could permanently replace workers who went on strike. The U.S. labor movement has yet to recover.
During his presidential campaign, Reagan floated the idea of a North American trade agreement. The beginnings of the North American Free Trade Agreement were implemented in 1994 under President Bill Clinton, and the final parts were set in place in 2008, as President Barack Obama took office. NAFTA has improved the lives of some of the have mores, while destroying much of America's manufacturing industry. NAFTA has forced competition to the bottom for workers in this country and abroad.
Gus Lubin of Business Insider writes that "The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Cliché, sure, but it's also more true than at any time since the Gilded Age ... wages are falling behind inflation, and social mobility is at an all time low. If you're in that top 1 percent, life is grand."
The poor are barely mentioned today. We don't speak of the working class. Now the focus of pundits and politicians is the middle class. America became the first middle class country in the world because of the labor movement — workers organizing to improve their lives. Additionally, after World War II, the G.I. Bill allowed many Americans to attend schools of higher education. American people and businesses benefited from this shared wealth.
The attack on the poor, the working class and the middle class in America has reached a new level with the move to destroy the public service unions in states like Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio. How to respond to this drive to squeeze and impoverish most of America? Fight now. Right now.
Join the We are One March and Rally hosted by the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Illinois AFL-CIO at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 9, at the Daley Plaza at the corner of Clark and Washington.
Tom Broderick is an Oak Park resident and co-chairman of the Oak Park Democratic Socialists of America.