Several years ago in Florence, I joined a march with thousands of working people, protesting the Italian government’s raising of the retirement age. Formerly, workers could retire after 35 years of work, but a new law wouldn’t allow them to receive a pension until they turned 65.
My wife pointed out the irony of marching in solidarity with workers who had rights Americans can’t imagine. Later, several Italians demanded to know why the average American worker doesn’t have health insurance, higher wages, better retirement benefits, more vacation time, and rights that Italian workers take for granted. How can we be so stupid? I had a hard time explaining why Americans support millionaires and billionaires instead of taking up for themselves. They never did understand and I don’t either.
When I returned home, California voters rejected a law that would have provided health care for more workers, paid for by employers. The law had passed the legislature and been signed by the governor, but before it could be implemented, corporations convinced voters to place it on the ballot. Strangely enough, rising health care costs were at the top of the list of voter’s concerns and they still voted against it.
As French students and workers march to protest a new law that will allow employers to fire employees without cause during their first two years of employment, one might expect American workers to sympathize with them. They don’t. When I said I was on the worker’s side, one friend criticized me for taking sides instead of considering all sides of the issue. Another minimum-wage friend became agitated when I protested tax cuts for the rich and claimed, “I haven’t given up the dream of getting rich someday.”
Many of us don’t consider ourselves workers, although 80 percent of us work for an hourly wage, which has barely kept up with inflation over the past 30 years. The rich, with our voting support, are doing fine. The top 20 percent account for almost half of consumer spending, while the bottom 80 percent share the remaining 54 percent. Since 1984, 30-million full-time workers have been laid off and forced to take lowering-paying jobs, while the richest one percent of households increased their share of corporate wealth from 39 percent in 1991 to 59 percent today.
The media response to the French workers strike may indicate why American workers fail to vote for their interests. Despite right-wing claims of the “liberal” media bias, the media reinforces attitudes detrimental to working people. A recent analysis of the coverage of the French strikes in the American press by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) a media watchdog group, illustrates where Americans get their attitudes.
A Los Angeles Times editorial recommended that the French demand that all job guarantees be loosened, while the “liberal” The New York Times suggested the French loosen “rigid labor laws” and trim “costly benefits.” Fox News said, “workers don’t want to work” and claimed the French are angry because they can’t get “a lazy do-nothing job.” ABC and CBS both derided the protesters, and when asked about the injustice of allowing bosses to lay off workers without cause, one reporter said, “But it is this way the world over.”
U.S. News & World Report ignored the fact that French workers are more productive than Americans and lectured the French about their 35-hour workweek, six weeks paid annual leave, and job security, which are going the way of “the dodo bird.” Fox’s Bill O’Reilly condemned what he called American “socialism” that would guarantee workers “a house, health care, a nice wage, (and) retirement benefits.”
Americans spout the anti-government beliefs fed to them by hundreds of think tanks supported by the richest of the rich, corporations seeking to avoid government regulation and taxes, churches seeking a return to the Dark Ages, and other right-wing forces that promote agendas to control the country. Every week they release hundreds of op eds, reports, TV shows, commentaries and well-honed arguments to convince people to identify themselves as independent, laissez faire individualists who oppose any government program to regulate workers trading their time for a paycheck.
It’s a wonder that American workers support the 18th century robber baron agenda of the Republican Party, a party that constantly votes against their interests: tax cuts for the rich; judges who support monopolies and always rule in favor of corporations; destruction of the environment; deregulation of rules that protect consumers and workers; support for an avaricious military-industrial-pharmaceutical complex; rampant business and Congressional corruption; and a Congress that refuses to raise the minimum wage, while raising it’s own pay seven times in eight years.
Working people are not here to create a wealthy ruling class: it’s time for us to demand that our interests be protected and that a minority of people stop getting the lion’s share of society’s benefits. It’s time we start identifying with other working people and find common cause in correcting injustices and stopping legalized corruption. At a minimum, it’s time for us to vote for our own interests and to take to the streets when our interests are ignored.
DON MONKERUD is an Aptos, California-based writer who follows cultural, social and political issues.