30 Years Ago Today: The Day the Middle Class Died …a letter from Michael
Friday, August 5th, 2011
From time to time, someone under 30 will ask me, “When did this all
begin, America’s downward slide?” They say they’ve heard of a time when
working people could raise a family and send the kids to college on just one
parent’s income (and that college in states like California and New York was
almost free). That anyone who wanted a decent paying job could get one. That
people only worked five days a week, eight hours a day, got the whole weekend
off and had a paid vacation every summer. That many jobs were union jobs, from
baggers at the grocery store to the guy painting your house, and this meant
that no matter how “lowly” your job was you had guarantees of a
pension, occasional raises, health insurance and someone to stick up for you if
you were unfairly treated.
Young people have heard of this mythical time — but it was no myth, it was
real. And when they ask, “When did this all end?”, I say, “It
ended on this day: August 5th, 1981.”
Beginning on this date, 30 years ago, Big Business and the Right Wing
decided to “go for it” — to see if they could actually destroy the
middle class so that they could become richer themselves.
And they’ve succeeded.
On August 5, 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired every member of the air
traffic controllers union (PATCO) who’d defied his order to return to work and
declared their union illegal. They had been on strike for just two days.
It was a bold and brash move. No one had ever tried it. What made it even
bolder was that PATCO was one of only three unions that had endorsed Reagan for
president! It sent a shock wave through workers across the country. If he would
do this to the people who were with him, what would he do to us?
Reagan had been backed by Wall Street in his run for the White House and
they, along with right-wing Christians, wanted to restructure America and turn
back the tide that President Franklin D. Roosevelt started — a tide that was
intended to make life better for the average working person. The rich hated
paying better wages and providing benefits. They hated paying taxes even more.
And they despised unions. The right-wing Christians hated anything that sounded
like socialism or holding out a helping hand to minorities or women.
Reagan promised to end all that. So when the air traffic controllers went on
strike, he seized the moment. In getting rid of every single last one of them
and outlawing their union, he sent a clear and strong message: The days of
everyone having a comfortable middle class life were over. America, from now
on, would be run this way:
* The super-rich will make more, much much more, and the rest of you will
scramble for the crumbs that are left.
* Everyone must work! Mom, Dad, the teenagers in the house! Dad, you work a
second job! Kids, here’s your latch-key! Your parents might be home in time to
put you to bed.
* 50 million of you must go without health insurance! And health insurance
companies: you go ahead and decide who you want to help — or not.
* Unions are evil! You will not belong to a union! You do not need an
advocate! Shut up and get back to work! No, you can’t leave now, we’re not
done. Your kids can make their own dinner.
* You want to go to college? No problem — just sign here and be in hock to
a bank for the next 20 years!
* What’s “a raise”? Get back to work and shut up!
And so it went. But Reagan could not have pulled this off by himself in
1981. He had some big help:
The biggest organization of unions in America told its members to cross the
picket lines of the air traffic controllers and go to work. And that’s just what
these union members did. Union pilots, flight attendants, delivery truck
drivers, baggage handlers — they all crossed the line and helped to break the
strike. And union members of all stripes crossed the picket lines and continued
Reagan and Wall Street could not believe their eyes! Hundreds of thousands
of working people and union members endorsing the firing of fellow union
members. It was Christmas in August for Corporate America.
And that was the beginning of the end. Reagan and the Republicans knew they
could get away with anything — and they did. They slashed taxes on the rich.
They made it harder for you to start a union at your workplace. They eliminated
safety regulations on the job. They ignored the monopoly laws and allowed
thousands of companies to merge or be bought out and closed down. Corporations
froze wages and threatened to move overseas if the workers didn’t accept lower
pay and less benefits. And when the workers agreed to work for less, they moved
the jobs overseas anyway.
And at every step along the way, the majority of Americans went along with
this. There was little opposition or fight-back. The “masses” did not
rise up and protect their jobs, their homes, their schools (which used to be
the best in the world). They just accepted their fate and took the beating.
I have often wondered what would have happened had we all just stopped
flying, period, back in 1981. What if all the unions had said to Reagan,
“Give those controllers their jobs back or we’re shutting the country
down!”? You know what would have happened. The corporate elite and their
boy Reagan would have buckled.
But we didn’t do it. And so, bit by bit, piece by piece, in the ensuing 30
years, those in power have destroyed the middle class of our country and, in
turn, have wrecked the future for our young people. Wages have remained
stagnant for 30 years. Take a look at the statistics and you can see that every
decline we’re now suffering with had its beginning in 1981 (here’s a
little scene to illustrate that from my last movie).
It all began on this day, 30 years ago. One of the darkest days in American
history. And we let it happen to us. Yes, they had the money, and the media and
the cops. But we had 200 million of us. Ever wonder what it would look like if
200 million got truly upset and wanted their country, their life, their job,
their weekend, their time with their kids back?
Have we all just given up? What are we waiting for? Forget about the 20% who
support the Tea Party — we are the other 80%! This decline will only end when
we demand it. And not through an online petition or a tweet. We are going to
have to turn the TV and the computer and the video games off and get out in the
streets (like they’ve done in Wisconsin). Some of you need to run for local
office next year. We need to demand that the Democrats either get a spine and
stop taking corporate money — or step aside.
When is enough, enough? The middle class dream will not just magically
reappear. Wall Street’s plan is clear: America is to be a nation of Haves and
Have Nothings. Is that OK for you?
Why not use today to pause and think about the little steps you can take to
turn this around in your neighborhood, at your workplace, in your school? Is
there any better day to start than today?