Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D- Mass. listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Nov. 12, 2013. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Senator Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday told a packed crowd of progressive labor activists and community organizers that she agrees with their new demand of “putting families first and good jobs for all“—because while “big bank, powerful corporations, and billionaires” are “doing just fine,” it remains average working people across the country who “are getting squeezed hard by an economy” that no longer works for them.
“The game is rigged. Because oil companies have great lobbyists. Because NASCAR owners and race horse owners have friends in Washington—and all those who don’t have lobbyists get less and less… and less.”
—Sen. Elizabeth WarrenSen. Warren (D-Mass.) lamented the loss of previous eras, specifically as the nation emerged from the Great Depression in the last century, when government policies and resources were aimed bolstering the common good. “We were investing in opportunity,” she said, citing 1930s and 40s-era spending on education and large-scale infrastructure projects. “We’re weren’t perfect, we didn’t get it all right,” Warren admitted, “but we were moving in the right direction.”
The senator was speaking at a kick-off event in Washington, D.C., as a coalition of five national organizations, plus affiliates from across the country, came together to announce a new campaign aimed at channeling the economic frustrations of tens of millions of Americans—including the poor, low-wage earners, and a struggling middle class. The effort, as laid out Wednesday, seeks to overthrow the entrenched policies of the wealthy and the powerful with a vision that addresses structural financial inequities while uplifting those who have been left behind and disempowered by the status quo.
The groups stood behind a new report—titled Putting Families First: Good Jobs for All (pdf)—which lays out a plan to guarantee good wages and benefits while creating new jobs to sustain both families and communities with new spending on infrastructure, education, childcare, and a clean energy future. Commissioned by the Center for Community Change and written by Dorian T. Warren, an associate professor at Columbia University and a Roosevelt Institute fellow, the document acts as a blueprint for political action and structural change.
Endorsed by a coalition that includes the Center for Popular Democracy, Jobs With Justice, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the Working Families Organization, the report’s findings and arguments form the foundation of the “Putting Families First” platform that they intend to put before lawmakers and candidates leading up to the 2016 campaign.
According to a statement by the coalition in the report’s introduction:
Low-quality jobs are keeping Americans struggling as they work to make ends meet — forcing millions of families to sacrifice on support for elders and compromise their children’s future. Structural unemployment is strangling opportunity. Racial and gender discrimination are baked into the labor market. These dynamics are not the product of remote, impersonal forces. Instead, they are the result of decisions we have made as a nation.
The good news is we can change how our economy is organized — if we can summon our collective will and strength. Here is a plan to do it.
This is a call to arms for all of us who recognize that bold steps are needed to address the evils of poverty, inequality, economic stagnation and shrinking opportu- nity for millions of Americans. As we launch a campaign to assure that everyone has access to a good job, this report will help us challenge the status quo, navigate new terrain and realize a vision of an economy that enables every family to thrive.
“We’re done tinkering on the margins of income inequality,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change. “We must be bold. That’s what this campaign is about. We can restore balance in our economy and create an America that works for everyone. This begins by putting families first. If politicians want to talk ‘family values,’ it’s time they start valuing families—and that means making sure all Americans can make ends meet.”
Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Organization, said the interests of regular people must be put ahead of those of the financial elite once again.
“For 30 years Wall Street has rigged the economy, and a lot of rich bankers have become really rich bankers,” Cantor said. “If we continue down this path, our democracy will perish. We don’t need more hedge fund millionaires. We do need millions more decent, middle class jobs that allow people to sustain their families, pay down their debt, and invest in a secure retirement. Everyone who isn’t blinded by greed knows this to be true.”
And Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, described how U.S. society is currently experiencing a “movement moment” in whcih “communities are rising” nationwide. “Just two weeks ago,” she noted, “thousands and thousands of fast food workers marched in streets across 200 cities to demand that every person’s work be valued and respected with dignified wage and the right to organize. That’s the audacious demand that is refocusing the conversation about inequality around the idea that wealth is created by people who work, and those who work should receive a fair share of the wealth they create.”
In a post on Wednesday that appeared on Common Dreams, Bhargava articulated the five focus areas of the new campaign this way:
- Decades of stagnant wages, the erosion of labor-market standards, and attacks on unions have left millions of working people without enough to get by. By raising employer standards, setting higher wage floors and restoring workers’ bargaining power, we can ensure that all working Americans have enough to provide for their families.
- As mothers and fathers struggle to find quality, affordable childcare, and families are forced to make difficult decisions every day about taking care of elderly or disabled family members, a major investment in the care economy would not only create and improve jobs in childcare and in-home care, but would also support families in need of quality care for loved ones.
- Historic disinvestment in communities of color has created concentrated areas of high poverty. By reinvesting in these communities, we can level the playing field and give millions of Americans the opportunity to advance and unleash their talents for the benefit of everyone.
- Global climate change may very well be the single greatest challenge facing humanity in this century, but it is also an opportunity to create sustainable jobs that reduce carbon emissions.
- Lastly, as millions of Americans struggle to provide for their families, the top 1 percent own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and they continue to be showered with tax cuts. It’s time we fix this system and invest revenue in an economy that works for all of us.
In her remarks, Sen. Warren rejected a familiar mantra in Washington, D.C. that the nation “is broke” or that there isn’t enough money to make such visions viable. “How can we be broke?” she asked. “Because I want to point out there is sure plenty of money—billions of dollars—for subsidies for big oil companies. There’s plenty of money for special breaks for owners of thorough-bred race horses. There are buckets of money to do great deals for owners of NASCAR race tracks. So why is there no money for the things that make our country work?”
“I’ll tell you why,” she continued, “The reason is because the game is rigged. Because oil companies have great lobbyists. Because NASCAR owners and race horse owners have friends in Washington—and all those who don’t have lobbyists get less and less… and less.”
“The essential thing at this moment is for us to connect with each across issues of race and class… and form ourselves into a great force to create better lives for ourselves.” —Rep. Keith Ellison
During an earlier panel discussion at the event discussing the coalition’s new campaign and its importance, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he believes that grassroots community organizing will remain the key if working people want to counter the outsized influence of money in politics and force lawmakers and political candidates to pay attention. “I think the important thing to keep in mind,” Ellison said, “is that the power is with the people.”
Ellison set aside the familiar phrase about “Speaking truth to power” and said that what’s more important, in this historical moment, is for progressive activists and community organizers to join forces in the fight against the corporate and elite interests that currently dominate the political and economic policy structures.
“Do you think that the Koch brothers don’t know they’re not paying us right?” he asked the crowd. “The ‘power’ knows that they’re doing this to us, but we’ve got to speak each other; we’ve got to connect with each other; and we’ve got to organize each other. The essential thing at this moment is for us to connect with each across issues of race and class. [We must] connect in all our diversity and pull ourselves together and form ourselves into a great force to create better lives for ourselves.”
“It’s absolutely the fact,” Ellison continued, “that we are the majority. And the wealth created in this country is created by our people. And some people at the tip, tip, tip top horde it and we have got to completely revolutionize that system.”
“If we continue down this path, our democracy will perish.”
—Dan Cantor, Working Families OrganizationIn her keynote address, Sen. Warren put an exclamation point on the day by saying that changes like the ones she and Ellison are calling for—and that the audience is clamoring for—won’t be easily realized. “But they are possible,” she said, “because we have seen David beat Goliath before. We have seen the lobbyists lose.”
And, she added: “The way I see it, you only get what you fight for.”
As Bhargava concluded in his essay, “Our country is more aware than ever before that our entire economic system is out of balance. We have reached a time in history where the need, the opportunity, and the energy are all here to create an economy that works for our families—now we need the will and the dedication of the American public to make it happen.”
Rep. Ellison signed-off by offering a reminder from the Civil Rights era of 50 years ago. “Remember this,” he told the audience of organizers and advocates, “Martin Luther King did not call up [President] Johnson and say, ‘Would you inspire me… ‘. Martin Luther King was in the streets ten years before the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act was ever passed. The people created it and then the politicians did it.”
And as she concluded, Warren expressed optimism about rebuilding an American economy that creates better futures for its people by providing jobs that pay a living wage and investing in programs that create opportunities, not debt and dead ends. “I believe in that America,” she said. “And I will fight for that America. And I know that so long as we fight, shoulder to shoulder, we will build the America we believe in.”
Watch Warren’s full speech:
Watch the panel discussion: