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What It's Going to Take to Claw Back Middle Class Wealth from the 1%

When unions decline, inequality soars and we all lose.

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Unions, of course, know all this and have been pressuring Congress for years to reform labor law. In fact, they were sure they could pass the Employee Free Choice Act (which would greatly facilitate union organizing) when the Democrats controlled the White House and Congress from 2008 to 2010. It didn't even come up for a vote.

What is to be done?

Right now, there are hundreds of small worker centers all over the country helping unorganized workers deal with problems at work. These proto-unions are staffed by young activists are full of hope. Some major unions also are deeply engaged in community organizing, trying to build large coalitions that support worker rights, increases in the minimum wage, and eventually, unionization. Nearly every union is fighting to prevent state governments from destroying public-sector unions and creating right-to-work-for-less states. And of course, unions continue to throw themselves, heart and soul, into electing Democrats. And yet, the decline continues.

I wish I had a dime for everytime someone like me attempts to chart a new path for labor. We always start with talk about building a movement, rebuilding class power, fighting for economic justice, working with and on behalf of the poor and the unemployed, uniting with environmentalists, linking with workers in developing nations like China, Brazil and India...and on and on. While all of these actions are important, I don't see how they will add up to a new movement with the power to take on our greedy elites.

So here's my two cents worth: Americans are furious with Wall Street. We're living through a crash created by and for financial elites, and the elites are coming out of it unscathed. Instead of Wall Street paying for the damage it has done, the rest of us are now being asked to pay with cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and many other programs that benefit middle- and lower-income groups. Occupy Wall Street proved that the American people were, at the very least, sympathetic to a movement that targets financial elites, just like the Populists and the Progressive movements did more than a century ago. A similar movement needs to be ignited and led by unions.

The nurses union (National Nurses United) is on the case, leading the charge for a “Robin Hood Tax” that would put a small fee on buying and selling all stocks, bonds, derivatives, futures, etc. The rest of the labor movement should join them.

But it will take more than unions. Every progressive group in the country should join the effort to bring high finance to heel. It's time for all of us to realize that inequality did not fall from the sky. It's not an act of god. It's not the result of globalization (look at Europe where unions are larger and inequality is smaller). It's the result of deliberate policies made by and for our economic elites, especially those on Wall Street.

Those same policies can be changed. But only if we have the persistence and the guts to take on the powerful financial vampires, sharks and hooligans that now lord over us. It will take nothing short of forging a long-term movement of unions in coalition with enviros, worker centers and every kind of progressive group imaginable. Good luck to all, especially the young activists who must light the way.

Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute in New York, and author of How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds Get Away with Siphoning Off America's Wealth (J. Wiley and Sons, 2013).


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