By Marjorie E. Wood
June 14, 2014
This is about money and politics.
Fast-food workers in hundreds of cities across the country and the world went on strike in mid-May to demand higher pay and better working conditions.
These workers targeted the richest and most powerful fast-food corporations such as McDonald’s and Burger King.
Walmart workers went on strike in 20 cities across the country a few weeks later, making demands similar to those of the fast-food workers.
These mobilizations are the latest in the fight of ordinary people to make the big corporations pay their workers enough to live decent lives.
Meanwhile, rich corporations are doing better than ever. According to the National Employment Law Project, the 50 largest employers of low-wage workers are highly profitable, massive corporations with executive compensation averaging $9.4 million.
This now commonplace predicament — rich executives reaping fat paychecks from companies that exploit low-wage workers — has become a symbol of extreme inequality in America.
Despite a few “inequality deniers,” most Americans realize that the gap between the rich and everyone else has grown dramatically over the past decade. It’s no longer controversial to point out that the rich have gotten richer, and the poor have gotten poorer.
Here are two ways former Labor Secretary Robert Reich illustrates this point: The United States has the 4th-highest degree of wealth inequality in the world, behind only Russia, Ukraine, and Lebanon. And the 400 richest Americans own 62 percent of wealth in America.
What we don’t talk about often enough is why this is happening.
Income inequality isn’t just about money. It’s about politics.
In this age of extreme inequality, the Supreme Court is handing down decisions that enshrine the political influence of wealthy Americans. The rich aren’t just getting richer. They are getting more powerful. As a result, the ability of average citizens to make our voices heard is eroding.
Low-wage workers are organizing to demand basic rights because the wealthy have expanded theirs.
In 2010, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling gave corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections under the guise of free speech. This year, its McCutcheon decision allowed individuals to give unlimited amounts of money to any candidate or political party.
In the wake of the McCutcheon ruling, a single donor can now funnel an unlimited amount of money to a variety of political candidates, parties and committees at the federal level. Only a few hundred people will be able to take advantage of this new “right” a Supreme Court majority has defined.
That isn’t democracy. That’s granting a few wealthy Americans the right to control our politics.
Bestowing such rights on the extremely wealthy in an age when ordinary Americans are barely getting by erodes our democracy. These legal precedents make it harder for workers to challenge exploitation or claim the right to a decent living.
When thousands of McDonald’s and Walmart workers go on strike, they are exercising their basic democratic right to have their voices heard.
The American people are listening, but not Congress.
An overwhelming majority — 76 percent — of Americans believe Congress should boost the federal minimum wage to $10.10.
However, that wage increase has stalled in Congress. A bill that would raise the wage from $7.25 to $10.10 was shelved in the Senate in late April.
It’s unacceptable that the will of the people doesn’t stand a chance in the halls of Congress. That’s why we must overturn these shameful Supreme Court decisions by amending the Constitution. It’s about protecting our democracy.
In this fight to reduce inequality, let’s ensure that the democratic means to do so aren’t taken from us as well.
OtherWords columnist Marjorie E. Wood is an economic policy associate at the Institute for Policy Studies, the Managing Editor of Inequality.org, and the co-author of the new IPS report Restaurant Industry Pay: Taxpayers’ Double Burden www.IPS-dc.org.