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Restoring the Promise of the American Dream

by Andy Stern

The promise of America is that if you work hard, you will be rewarded. You will be able to provide for your family, own a decent home, afford quality health care, and enjoy a secure retirement. It is that promise that built a thriving middle class. It is the American Dream, and it has inspired generations of women and men who helped make this country great.

Today we are living through a period of profound economic change. We have new ways of communicating, new methods of production, new means of generating wealth, new global competition. And while many of the ways we used to do business have changed, the American Dream has not.

Today, in 2007, that dream is at risk. We stand at a moment of unprecedented economic opportunity, but that opportunity is not being extended to all. Tens of millions of Americans are working harder than ever just to stay afloat. The latest Census Bureau report shows that wages are dropping and more people lack health insurance.

On the other hand, a handful of incredibly wealthy people are prospering beyond all comprehension. Private equity CEOs are making on average more than $650 million -- or more than 22,000 times what the average American worker brings in. Put another way, it takes the average American worker one full year to make what a wealthy buyout CEO makes in only ten minutes.

The buyout industry and the big banks are cutting the heart out of the American economy. Global buyout corporation the Carlyle Group is taking over one of the nation's largest nursing home chains, ManorCare. As part of the deal, ManorCare's CEO Paul Ormond will personally profit up to $186 million dollars, money that could have gone to hire more nursing home aides to care for our loved ones. Even worse, ManorCare will pay no corporate taxes while it is owned by Carlyle. The lost federal, state and local tax revenues over the next five years? More than $600 million. There's a credit crunch on, and massive lenders like Bank of America are using their size and market dominance to run up fees and credit card rates, deny loans to working families and minority communities, and lay off workers.

This Labor Day, a greater percentage of the economy is going to profits than to wages, and a majority of parents believe their children will be worse off economically. Tens of millions of people in the U.S. are working harder than ever before, but they're still falling behind.

We are at a crucial moment, a moment that makes us ask what kind of country we want to be.

The answer to that question must include more workers uniting in unions -- the labor movement. Unions have always been the best anti-poverty, best pro-health care, best pro-family program around. Unions have done more to help working people experience economic success than any other program.

This week, a new report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Inclusion showed that workers in the lowest-paying jobs make about 16 percent more when they are members of a union, and they are 25 percent more likely to have health insurance or a pension plan.

Now, more than ever, as new technologies and new ways of thinking about efficiency have reduced workers to a line item on a balance sheet, unions are not only relevant -- we are indispensable.

As the economic landscape has shifted, the labor movement has needed to adapt to these new realities. I am proud to report that the 1.9 million workers united in SEIU stand at the forefront of the evolving labor movement. In recent years we have pioneered new models of organizing, like uniting workers in nontraditional employment situations. Since 1999, 400,000 home care workers have changed state laws throughout the country to give them the freedom to unite in a union.

We have established new relationships with employers who are willing to reward work, while continuing to hold accountable those who are not. We are acting on new ways to secure health care and retirement security that reflect rather than deny the new economic reality.

The bottom line is this: the American economy is not a zero-sum game. There is no good moral or economic reason why all workers cannot or should not share in the success and prosperity they helped create. We need to restore the promise of the American Dream. And that means choosing what kind of country we want to be.

-Andy Stern, President, Service Employees International Union

Also from SEIU this Labor Day, check out Cincinnati janitor Craig Jones' "Just Work" blog about turning minimum wages into livable wages.

About SEIU: The 1.9 million-member SEIU is the fastest-growing union in North America. SEIU members are winning better wages, health care, and more secure jobs for our communities, while uniting their strength with their counterparts around the world to help ensure that workers, not just corporations and CEOs, benefit from today's global economy.

© 2007 Huffington Post

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