“We’ve still got to look out for each other,” Lucas said when asked about his continuing union activism two decades after he retired from the Connecticut Department of Transportation. “I learned that lesson when I was just a kid fighting in the fields of France.”
Hoover or FDR? The Choice is in Our Hands
Everyone agrees that we are in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Demand for goods and services — except for government services — is way down, and since people and businesses are not spending, businesses are laying-off or not hiring workers or cutting their wages and benefits. Very much like what happened after the stock market crash of 1929.
Though I was just a young boy at the time, I remember what it was like growing up in Bridgeport in the Great Depression. I remember the divide between those who believed in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” plan to get America working again and the corporate elite who opposed it, saying that cutting government spending was the answer.
History proved who had the better plan for our country.
By the time I enlisted in the Army in 1942, America was well on its way to recovery. When I returned to Connecticut four years later, the nation had begun building the strongest economy in world history, leading to 50 years of prosperity and an unprecedented expansion of the middle class.
That divide emerged again two years ago when the current crisis erupted. Some political leaders and representatives of the very well-to-do began saying that we could cut our way out of a recession. Like the tycoons and financiers of the past, they claimed that if we just lowered government spending, everything would be all right.
These new voices have proposed reductions in infant nutrition services, nursing home care for seniors, support for towns and cities and local public schools, and cuts in wages and benefits for public service workers.
The other side of the divide is lead by economists and working families, who learned from my generation how we pulled ourselves out of the Great Depression.
The economists tell us cuts that in public services and reductions in spending during a crisis like this is exactly the wrong thing to do. It lowers demand for goods and services in the private economy. Lower demand means less hiring and a prolonged crisis.
And working families are beginning to recall what my generation did to address the crisis of falling wages in the 1930 and 40s. Workers came together from across all sectors of the economy and built unions to secure livable wages and a shot a better future.
But the answers we found to solve the Great Depression were not inevitable. The prevailing wisdom of the day was exemplified by President Herbert Hoover’s program of cuts.
And the prevailing reaction to workers coming together in unions was disdain, court injunctions, and even violence. As millionaire industrialist Jay Gould had suggested a half century earlier, defenders of the status quo did everything they could to divide working families, to “pay one half to kill the other.”
It took the courage and vision of millions of American workers, and the wisdom and backbone of leaders like FDR to make these answers real.
The current generation is coming together once again. State public service workers came forward last year with $700 million in cost savings — 10 times more than the budget eventually asked from those making over a million dollars a year, when compared as a percentage of income.
State workers made clear they were sacrificing in the hope of spurring long-term solutions, and not just for closing the budget gap. They expected to contribute to a real plan for protecting services, jump-starting the economy, and helping to create private sector jobs.
But instead of learning from her parents’ generation, Governor M. Jodi Rell seems to have taken her cue from Herbert Hoover. Rather than ask the wealthiest 1% who invest pay less than 5% of their income in state and local taxes to contribute the same 10% as the rest of Connecticut’s working families, she has offered a program premised on cuts.
And some of the rhetoric from the governor’s allies who are pushing for cuts is nothing less than scapegoating public service employees.
These workers, like their friends and neighbors in the private sector, have made sacrifices during this recession. Of course they resist giving up far more than their fair share when so little is asked of the very rich.
The days of hiring half the working class to kill the other may be over, but attempts to con half into blaming the other for a down economy apparently aren’t. Warren Buffet said it: “There’s class warfare, all right; but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
It’s time for Connecticut’s families, who have been losing that war, to come together and win.
Michael Lucas, Jr.
Michael retired as transportation driver from Fairfield Hills Hospital in 1989. He is currently the Vice-President of the Retirees Council in CSEA/SEIU Local 2001, one of the thirteen unions in the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC).