My grandfather, Pio, was born in 1909 in New York City, the son of poor Italian immigrants who had recently arrived in America seeking prosperity. He began working at a very young age to help support his family. At thirteen, Pio lost his father and as the eldest son with six siblings, took responsibility as the family wage earner. On one occasion, he was out making deliveries during a blizzard. The streets were empty in the lower east side of Manhattan and a police officer came up to Pio, thinking he was a delinquent up to no good. My grandfather explained that he needed to work so that his family could eat; the officer escorted him through the rest of his route.
Life never came easy for Pio, but he nonetheless became a hardworking, diligent husband and father who raised three capable and successful children. He worked numerous jobs throughout his adult life, and after having some major setbacks, including the devastating loss of his first daughter when she was just nine-years-old and the theft of an electrical contracting business by an unscrupulous partner, Pio became a union-backed electrician who worked on projects for the city of New York.
Pio was able to send both of his remaining children to private colleges. In his later years, Pio and his wife retired to a comfortable condominium in Connecticut. All of this time he constantly showered his four grandchildren with an abundance of gifts (not the least of which was his unconditional love and adoration). How was a man with no high school diploma able to so successfully provide for his nuclear family and even their offspring? He had a union.
What was granted to my grandfather – the simple ability to raise a healthy and productive American family – is far too rare today. Families with two incomes cannot even afford to send their children to state universities, let alone private ones. Moreover, pensions and retirement savings either no longer exist or are threatened with being revoked.
By the 1950s and 1960s, both public and private sector employees enjoyed relatively healthy incomes with considerable access to necessary benefits such as family health insurance and pensions. These comforts came as a result of union victories over the horrendous exploitation and abuse of workers that had occurred so prevalently for decades and decades prior. In subsequent years, beginning around the time I was born in the 1970s, private sector unions were diminishing and the public perception of unions began to decline. Or so we thought. Recent polls reveal that the public still overwhelmingly supports unions in spite of the well-orchestrated campaign to vilify them.
The media took the reins in promulgating the narrative that unions crumbled due to rampant corruption and the laziness and/or ineptitude of the union workforce. Though these situations existed to a minor extent, unions were in fact systematically dismantled by moneyed corporate interests whose wealth enabled them to lobby government as well as dole out millions in public relations messages to control the rhetoric about unions. We continue to see these same baseless rhetorical tactics right now with the attacks on teachers and public employees throughout the United States.
Concurrently, as private sector unions lost power over the past three to four decades, all employee benefits were cut, the middle class deteriorated, the gap between rich and poor expanded, and the richest 1-2% of citizens amassed record wealth while paying their lowest tax rates in history. Furthermore, corporations began to dominate all aspects of American life. They paid (or avoided paying) minimal taxes, and gained greater and greater rights as citizens, culminating in the Citizens United verdict of last year. This profoundly irresponsible and unethical Supreme Court decision allowed corporations to not only control our media and commerce, but to establish complete control of our governments. The influx of corporate money into elections ushered in the many tea party and ultra-conservative officials in local, state, and federal governments. These candidates won narrow victories that would never have been accomplished without enormous sums of private funds. These crony politicians do not represent real people, nor do they reflect the people’s choice. They are tools of the corporate elite.
Now, because of the profound corporate influence on our democracy, state and federal officials are adopting the same regressive legislation that the governor here in Wisconsin is attempting to put forward. It constitutes the decimation of the entire social infrastructure – which already stood on shaky ground – to be replaced by a sociopathic corporate model via the ideological cronies that the corporate backers spent millions to get elected.
However, the same pathological greed inherent in corporate capitalism, which served to enable the consolidation of wealth and power by the corporate elite, may ultimately prove to be its doom. As I said in my testimony to the Wisconsin legislative Joint Finance Committee less than two weeks ago: When people lose all rights, they also lose all fear. There will be nothing left to lose. People around the world are no longer tolerating their lack of freedom under dictatorial regimes. And indeed, we here in Wisconsin have reached our critical breaking point.
No single one of us could ever have resisted alone. The struggle in Wisconsin immediately united working people as we remembered a few simple truths: We are much more alike than we are different. We all deserve a decent existence. We all have been robbed by the rich and powerful. And the mainstream media’s conventional wisdom and false paradigms represent corporate interests, not ours. In order for this large group of organized, committed individuals to come together in Wisconsin, we relied on the same tools that our grandparents used: our unions. Without unions, the convergence of common citizens and taxpayers seeking representation and dignity may have never occurred. With unions, there is a fighting chance to battle injustice. We may not have the money or the power, but there is great strength in numbers, which is exactly why the minority elite wish to see unions permanently destroyed.
My grandfather was a proud American patriot, a devout Catholic, a tireless laborer, and a staunch unionist whose American dream was fulfilled. He would never have imagined that his granddaughter and her peers would again be fighting for rights that his generation had already secured. He would be appalled to see how his nation, which had afforded him so many opportunities, has methodically removed those same opportunities for his grandchildren. He would be livid about the attacks on public sector employees, yet he would also know that through his precious union, a means of resistance was possible.
Some may call Saturday, March 5, Day 20 of sustained resistance to the so-called “budget repair bill” in Wisconsin. Or they may identify it as a continuing protest against the oligarchic administration of Gov. Scott Walker. But we might as well stop counting the days because this will not soon be over. And we may as well stop calling it a protest. This is a movement.
We are here for the long haul to protect our rights to collective bargaining. We are here to preserve our rights to a just standard of living. We are here to honor our fellow Wisconsinites and all Americans. And in addition, I am here to honor my beloved grandfather.