We are the 99 Percent

George Gresham | 11/2/2011, 7 p.m.
The Occupy Wall Street movement (#OWS) has captured the imagination of our nation and the...
George Gresham, President 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

The Occupy Wall Street movement (#OWS) has captured the imagination of our nation and the world. No one can predict its outcome, but it already has scored major victories by shifting the focus and discussion throughout the country. Members of the media have turned their attention from the Tea Party's budget-deficit diversion to the growing economic inequality and excesses of the financial elite.

We in 1199SEIU have enthusiastically joined the #OWS movement. Their movement echoes and amplifies our ongoing fight for a fair economy. The urgency of that campaign was strengthened last week by several polls and government reports.

For example, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office reported last week that the 1 percent of the population with the highest, real after-tax household income grew by a whopping 275 percent between 1979 and 2007. That top 1 percent has doubled its share of the nation's income in the last three decades.

By contrast, for the 60 percent of the population in the middle of the income scale, the growth in average real after-tax household income was just under 40 percent, almost seven times less than the top 1 percent. The situation is even worse for the bottom 20 percent. Their income grew by just 20 percent over the same period. Meanwhile, the cost of living has risen at a much faster pace.

Conditions have worsened since the period covered in the report. The excesses of Wall Street and the mega-banks tanked our economy in 2008. These firms were then bailed out by trillions of our taxpayer dollars and are now enjoying record profits. Also, because of their control of our political process and too many of our elected officials, the bankers have essentially rendered meaningless any Dodd-Frank financial reforms and the Volcker rule, which were supposedly passed to rein in Wall Street's excesses.

Meanwhile, those of us who lost our livelihoods, our homes, our pensions and much of our social services have yet to recover. For those of us who have managed to remain in our homes, a record number of our mortgages remain under water, while student loan debt now stands at a staggering $1 trillion.

Too many of those students who borrowed to achieve the American dream have no way of repaying their debts because they can't find jobs. In fact, with unemployment hitting double digits in communities of color, many of these young people are competing with their fathers and mothers for jobs.

As the #OWS demonstrators frequently declare, "They [Wall Street] have been bailed out, and we have been sold out!"

But thanks to #OWS and others on the frontlines for economic justice, the tide is shifting. Nearly nine in 10 Democrats, two out of three independents and one in three Republicans believe the distribution of wealth in the country should be more equitable, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll last week. The same poll revealed that almost half of the public thinks the sentiment at the root of the Occupy movement reflects the view of most Americans.

These figures should especially resonate for us in New York because last week we also learned from the U.S. Census Bureau that income inequality is greater in New York State and in New York City than in any other state or metropolitan area in the country.

Also, a Quinnipiac University poll last week found that two-thirds of the respondents-including 57 percent of Republicans-in the state would like to see the present millionaire's surtax continue. Some elected officials argue that continuation of the tax would spur an exodus of the rich, though there is no evidence of millionaires leaving New York these past two years while the tax has been in effect.

What happened to shared sacrifice? Haven't working people given enough? Rather than maintain the millionaire's tax, would our elected officials prefer to lay off more public workers, freeze wages, reduce pensions and close schools and hospitals?

The answer is easy. I stand with Occupy Wall Street and the 99 percent.