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Our topic today is a livable economy, and right now that conversation is urgent. I don’t have to tell you that, you’re all here because you know something is wrong. We live in a society that promises us that if we work hard we will succeed. If we allow the free market to self-regulate there will be prosperity for all. This is demonstrably false.
46.2 million Americans live below the poverty line. You already know that. They’re your neighbors, your family, your friends, yourself. You see the steady stream of foreclosures in your communities, maybe you’re having difficulty putting food on the table or finding a steady job. You don’t have healthcare, your children’s schools are underfunded or being closed.
We see it in working class communities everyday. These are the negative effects of austerity, deregulation, and corporate greed- beliefs espoused by both the Democrats and the Republicans. A system which enables a tiny fraction of our population to control the lion’s share of our wealth. That wealth has allowed them to bully their way through our legislation, trample over our civil liberties, engage in war for profit, and all in the name of American exceptionalism.
Because they have such a firm stranglehold on our democracy, the rich have been able to protect the wealth they accumulated by the fruit of our labor. They make it harder for us to organize, retaliate against workers who speak out about workplace grievances, in some cases committing wage theft and unfair labor practices designed to keep the majority silenced.
President Obama, once such a strong supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier to organize, has now abandoned it. When your campaign is financed by banks too big to fail, labor is relegated to the back burner. Millions of Americans were sold out to pander to the interests of those who demolished our economy in the first place.
Our government’s brilliant response to this crippling recession reveals where their interests truly lie, and it’s certainly not with us. In a recent Presidential debate Barack Obama speculated that on Social Security he and Mitt Romney had essentially the same plan- massive cuts in social safety net programs paraded around as “modest reforms”. As a disabled woman who lives on the $822.00 dollars per month that Social Security provides, this is an alarming trend but not a surprising one.
In the spring of 2011 my life was in complete turmoil. I was 23 years old and after working 40-50 hours per week for years, eventually reaching a slightly higher paying supervisor position, I had to quit my job. I hadn’t had any access to consistent healthcare since I’d turned 18, so the symptoms of my illness had worsened intensely. For two years I’d been scrounging and borrowing to see clinic doctors and trying desperately to purchase the medications I needed to remain a fully-functional member of the workforce. Despite being a full time employee and a supervisor there were no medical benefits at my job. My partner urged me to file for disability. My therapist urged me to file for disability, and when finally my clinic doctors began to suggest the idea I had to admit it was time.
I wanted to work. I still want to work. I’d begged the doctors at my clinic to help me save my job. I was the kind of girl who showed up early and stayed late, took extra shifts whenever I possibly could, and filled in for sick workers on the fly. My condition didn’t disable me, but rather the lack of healthcare that I desperately needed disabled me.
For 8 demoralizing months I was without income while Social Security determined my fate. My partner and I struggled to make ends meet in a one-bedroom apartment on his full-time salary. Eventually we had to give up the apartment and move into a house with relatives. Doctor’s visits and medications were no longer an option with a budget too narrow to even afford decent food.
It’s worth noting that even now, after having been on disability for almost a year, I am expected to pay $191 per month in order to receive Medicaid- that’s almost a quarter of my income each month, and far too expensive for me to even consider.
Originally I’d been thrilled with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, thinking it was designed to help people like me. When I began to look into the legislation, however, I was stunned by the fact that it was essentially a handout to Big Insurance and Big Pharma, with very little content left over. I read about drone strikes in Pakistan and wondered why it was a priority to kill innocent people but not a priority to make sure sick Americans don’t go into bankruptcy over medical debt. I had always thought that Democracy and Capitalism were essential to the American Dream, but that American Dream had turned into a nightmare because the profit system has no regard for human life.
Instead of dumping trillions and trillions of dollars into endless wars, corporate welfare, and enabling the horrific violation of human rights that Palestinian’s face under Israeli Apartheid couldn’t there be a smarter way to spend our money? Like say, Healthcare? Education? Housing? Investing in Green Energy that wouldn’t recklessly endanger the human race the way fossil fuels do?
As Occupy Wall Street kicked off that fall, I was fed up. My experiences had begun to radicalize me. It’s important that we recognize the path we took to become activists. We weren’t hatched from an egg with this inherent knowledge of political and social good and evil. We’re real human beings who have struggled and suffered. All of the theory in the world can never match the connection you feel when someone speaks to your life experiences.
My mother and I had been foreclosed on in 2007 after our two full time incomes were not enough to catch up, and that devastating event was taking over every street in my neighborhood. Virtually everyone I knew worked full time and could not make ends meet. I wanted to do something about it, but what? I couldn’t demand Green Energy, or livable wages, or universal healthcare. I couldn’t demand an end to drone strikes, bought off politicians, and our 30 Billion dollar gift to Israel. I couldn’t. I can’t. None of us can on our own.
It isn’t all bleak though. In September, I had the opportunity to rally and march with the Chicago Teachers Union for two sensational days in their battle against Rahm Emanuel. Emmanuel, once Obama’s chief of staff, had pursued a policy of educational reform as mandated by Race to the Top. His hand-selected, corporate-controlled school board full of millionaires and billionaires like Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker had been ordering the closures of schools in poor areas of color that had already been starved of funding, and directing taxpayer money to privately-owned Charter schools instead.
As you can imagine, parents and teachers were not pleased with having no libraries for students, no books until six weeks into the school year, less social workers and support staff, and no control of the education of their children.
For 9 days in September the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike.
On the second day of the strike we left our motel in Indiana and took a commuter train into the city for a rally outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters. The last few passengers on were clad in their union-red, holding signs, and chatting excitedly about the event that was dominating the city. When we finally pulled into the last stop of the South Shore line and the doors opened, out poured a literal flood of red shirts. As we left the train station we began seeing other groups of strikers converging on us from every direction.
When we finally navigated ourselves to the rally, the supporters took up several city blocks. Afterward, the entire group marched for two miles in downtown Chicago, chanting and singing. Cheerleaders were being tossed into the air, toddlers being pulled along in wagons. From apartment balconies, cars and sidewalks were cheers and and signs of support.
This wasn’t a spontaneous reaction, but rather the result of months and months of informational pickets, community meetings and rallies, and the tireless dedication of public school teachers and the families they serve. They took to the streets, they organized, and they won big. A mass movement of workers, students, parents, and community members did this every day for 9 days. They shut down whole areas of the third largest city in America instead of accepting the crippling cuts to education that hurt their families, their livelihood, and their community. They took on a Democratic Mayor in an election year, for a party that labor is usually keen to defend. You can call me optimistic, but that act shows enormous potential in my eyes.
Walmart workers are fighting back as well now, What started as a series of walkouts in distribution centers contracted by Walmart has spread to include the stores themselves. Black Friday actions are planned in several states, as workers finally begin the push for the largest private US employer to become unionized.
The last two years have changed the global community drastically. As a response to dictatorship and absolute monarchy, massive inequality and rising food prices, and the overwhelming corruption of the autocrats in control, The Arab Spring started a trend that cannot be reversed now. Mass demonstrations, met with violent suppression, have overthrown the Governments of Egypt and Tunisia.
A full scale revolution is being fought in the streets of Syria. This revolution has been so successful that the Obama administration has decided to deploy combat-ready troops in Libya and Yemen for “security” purposes. Whether this security will result in a US attempt to install their own regime in Syria remains to be seen.
We’ve seen this wave of strikes and mass movements move steadily out from the Middle East, and into the European community as well, with actions in France, Spain, Italy and Great Britain. Greece, while fighting an endless war against forced austerity, also has the violence of the fascist group Golden Dawn to contend with. Greek resisters have formed Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, as a display of solidarity against the racist, homophobic, and xenophobic ideology of the opposition. In Chile and Quebec students are mobilizing to make higher education affordable and accessible to all with thousands flooding the streets in protest.
Meanwhile, in the United States, we wonder: Can it happen here? The Occupy movement, for all it’s faults, was the first real push towards a Left Coalition in this country. It is not the end of our struggle, but rather represents a movement that is growing and blossoming, changing and reacting to the world around it. Occupy pulled in a new layer of activists, like myself, whose political consciousness was changing.
Howard Zinn once said “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but “who is sitting in” — and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.” Zinn was a historian, and history proves him correct. The gains that have been made by the working class have not been given, they’ve been fought for. Real change comes when the working class demands it, not when politicians allow it.
When women sought the vote they took to the streets, they organized, they won. I owe them a debt I can never repay every time I fill in my ballot. When black America was legally discriminated against they took to the streets, they organized, they won. When workers wanted an 8 hour day, weekends, disability insurance, better pay, safer working conditions, and the end of child labor they took to the streets, they organized, they won.
Yes, the ruling class has money and influence. They have mansions and yachts and politicians in their back pockets while you can barely pay your bills. But they don’t have the numbers, we do. Nothing works without us. From the union autoworker to the undocumented laborer we are the producers of this society. We work all our lives to put profit in other peoples pocket’s while we can barely survive on the scraps we’re given.
We produce enough grain alone on this planet to feed every single human being, yet millions starve to death because they can’t afford to pay for food. We have neighborhoods full of foreclosed homes going into disrepair and yet the rate of homeless children has gone up 33% in the last three years alone. We have full time workers living in absolute poverty, having to depend on food stamps and medicaid to provide for their families because they make a minimum wage that is disastrously incapable of supporting even one single human being.
This is the true face of Capitalism- profits are valued more than people. There’s money to be made in fracking, coal mining, and oil drilling so why should it matter that working class lives are at risk because of these policies? Who cares about the ecosystem when there’s next quarter’s profit to concern yourself with.
We care. This is our country, our lives, our health, our education, our homes and our planet. When the working class rises in Solidarity we can shut down cities. We can change the conversation. We can shut down the factories and demand better. We can win significant reforms. I know we can because we have before. This is the only way the working class gets anything worth having.
So long as Capitalism remains our economic system profit will always come before people. We can win reform, but reform isn’t enough. If we want a society that consciously produces for human need instead of mindlessly producing for corporate profits we have to fight for it. A better world is possible, but not under this system. This system is rotten to it’s core, bloated with the wealth we produce but never see a cent of.
Capitalism is the crisis, and Socialism is the alternative. We can produce food to feed hungry people. We can produce houses to provide shelter for the homeless. We can stop spending trillions on war and corporate subsidies, bank bailouts and sham elections, and start spending it on the things we actually do need. The working class built this country, we operate this country, we populate this country, isn’t it time we control this country as well?
When the working class is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.
Katrina Bacome is from Toledo, Ohio and is a member of the Central Committee of the Lucas County Green Party. She is actively campaigning for Jill Stein and also works with the local chapter of the International Socialist Organization and Occupy Toledo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These remarks were delivered at the Rally for a Livable Economy in Toledo, Ohio on the 27th of October, 2012.