Economy

Hightower: If You Don't Fight for the Middle Class, Kiss It Good-Bye

America's corporate chieftains must love poor people, for they're doing all they can to create millions more of them. Let's put a stop to this.

America's corporate chieftains must love poor people, for they're doing all they can to create millions more of them.

They're knocking down wages, offshoring everything from manufacturing jobs to high tech, reducing full-time work to part-time, downsizing our workplaces, busting unions, cutting health care coverage and canceling pensions -- while also lobbying in Washington to privatize Social Security, eliminate job safety protections, restrict unemployment benefits, kill job-creating programs and increase corporate control of our elections.

It's said that the poor and the rich will always be among us. But nowhere is it written that the middle-class will always be there. In fact, it is a very recent creation in our society (and an unavailable dream for most people in the world). America's great middle class literally arose with the rise of labor unions and populist political movements in the 1800s, finally culminating in democratic economic reforms implemented from the 1930s into the 1960s.

Social Security, wage AND hour laws, collective bargaining rights, unemployment compensation, the GI Bill, the interstate highway program, civil rights laws, Medicare, Head Start -- and more -- provided the national framework necessary to sustain a middle class for the American Majority.

This essential framework was not "given" to us by corporate executives and politicians -- indeed, they sputtered, spewed and fought every piece of it tooth and nail. Rather, it came from union-led grassroots movements, organizing for structural change.

This Labor Day, we see corporate executives and their politicians relentlessly dismantling that framework, piece by piece -- and we see the middle class disappearing and poverty rising with each dismantled piece. But as labor icon Joe Hill said just before he was executed by Utah authorities for his unionizing activities, "Don't mourn, organize." It's time for working families to organize again for the revitalization of the middle class.

Who'll take a stand these days for restoring America's founding ethic of the common good?

You won't get this leadership from Washington -- and damned sure not from those in the corporate suites who're ruthlessly pushing an ethic of uncommon greed, saying to the middle class, "Adios, chumps."

Instead, look to places like Williamson, a town in upstate New York. This is apple country, home to a sprawling Mott's apple processing plant. Generations of families have worked at this plant, and there had not been a labor dispute in over 50 years. But the Mott family is long gone -- and so is the sense of shared purpose that had unified owners and workers.

In 2008, Mott's became a subsidiary of Dr. Pepper Snapple, a giant Texas conglomerate that also owns 7Up, Hawaiian Punch and dozens of other brands. DPS, as it's known, is doing very well, having banked a record profit of half-a-billion dollars last year. But its honchos apparently missed that basic kindergarten lesson about sharing. Indeed, the new owners introduced themselves to the area by eliminating the company's annual summer picnic, the children's Christmas party and other community-building touches.

Then, this March, DPS bosses abruptly demanded pay cuts averaging about $3,000 per worker, while also slashing pensions and hiking employee costs for health care. Why? Because they asserted that Mott's 300 workers were paid more than others in the area and should simply lower their standard of living accordingly. This from a corporation that paid its CEO $6.5 million last year! Adding insult to injury, the plant manager called workers "a commodity like soybeans" that can easily be replaced. Take the cuts -- or else, demanded DPS.

The workers chose "else." As we celebrate Labor Day at the beach or at backyard barbeques, they are on a strike for middle-class survival that's now in its fourth month.

This is not just about them, but about what kind of country America will be. If DPS succeeds in knocking down these skilled, experienced, loyal workers, other profitablecorporations will follow. The Mott workers are taking a courageous stand for the middle class and our country's commitment to economic justice. To stand with them, go to www.ufcw.org.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the new book, "Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow." (Wiley, March 2008) He publishes the monthly "Hightower Lowdown," co-edited by Phillip Frazer.
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