"For more than thirty years, too many politicians in Washington have made deliberate choices that favored those with money and power," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said at the AFL-CIO's first National Summit on Raising Wages, held Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
But by raising the minimum wage, supporting organized labor, breaking up big banks, and rejecting corporate-friendly trade deals and tax codes, it is possible to "un-rig the system," she said.
"Instead of building an economy for all Americans, for the past generation this country has grown an economy that works for some Americans."
—Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Pivoting off a recent Politico article titled "Everything is Awesome," in which journalist Michael Grunwald outlined several ways in which the U.S. economy appears to be on the upswing, Warren declared that "despite these cheery numbers, America's middle class is in deep trouble."
"A lot of broad national economic statistics say our economy is getting better, and it is true that the economy overall is recovering from the terrible crash of 2008," Warren acknowledged. "But there have been deep structural changes in this economy, changes that have gone on for more than thirty years, changes that have cut out hard-working, middle class families from sharing in this overall growth."
It's true, she said, that the stock market is rising, corporate profits and GDP are up, unemployment numbers are low, and inflation is dropping. "But if you work at Walmart, and you are paid so little that you still need food stamps to put groceries on the table, what does more money in stockholders' pockets and an uptick in GDP do for you?" Warren asked.
"When I look at the data here—and this includes years of research I conducted myself—I see evidence everywhere about the pounding that working people are taking," she continued. "Instead of building an economy for all Americans, for the past generation this country has grown an economy that works for some Americans. For tens of millions of working families who are the backbone of this country, this economy isn't working. These families are working harder than ever, but they can't get ahead. Opportunity is slipping away. Many feel like the game is rigged against them—and they are right. The game is rigged against them."
The AFL-CIO's national conference was the launch for its 2015 'Raising Wages' campaign, which will involve four state-level labor summits in the first presidential battleground states—Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina—as well as worker mobilization efforts in locations nationwide: Atlanta, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; St. Louis, Missouri; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and San Diego, California.
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"We are tired of people talking about inequality as if nothing can be done," AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told those in attendance on Wednesday. "The answer is simple: Raise the wages of the 90 percent of Americans whose wages are lower today than they were in 1997. Families don’t need to hear more about income inequality—they need more income."
Writing at The Nation, George Zornick called Warren's speech both "really important" and "revealing."
"These specific policy disagreements between Warren and Obama—and between many progressive and moderate Democrats more broadly—are best explained by the philosophical difference Warren tried to outline in Wednesday’s speech," he wrote. "If you believe the economy is basically doing fine, you’re less likely to want to rock the boat policy-wise. You’ll push for some nice things like increasing the minimum wage, but nothing enormous. Things are good!"
"But," Zornick continued, "if you believe, as Warren and many of her progressive allies in Congress do, that the game is fundamentally rigged, the rhetorical and substantive response to economic problems is much different."
The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, said the speech was both "a lesson in progressive economic theory" and "loaded with not-terribly-veiled references to Hillary Clinton and attacks on Bill Clinton’s record as president."
By pointing out that 100 percent of increased wealth and income over the last 32 years has gone to the top 10 percent, for example, Warren "makes a potent argument that Mr. Clinton—and by association, Mrs. Clinton—had the same results for the middle class as Republican presidents," Reid Epstein wrote for the WSJ. "By tying the records of the Reagan, Clinton, Obama and two Bush administrations together, Ms. Warren paints herself as the outside-the-system crusader her supporters want her to be."