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Tuesday, Sep 18 2012 11:00 PM

PATSY OUELLETTE: Chicago teachers strike speaks to wider issue of silenced middle class

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    Patsy Ouellette

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Why was the Chicago teachers strike important to the average American? Let's look at some alarming statistics. The top 1 percent now owns 40 percent of the national wealth. This is equivalent to the "Golden Age" of 1910 to 1929, when unions were still coalescing and the country was largely run by the robber barons: Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan and a few others. Six-day workweeks and 10-hour workdays were normal. Child labor was a blot on our collective conscience.

With the income division becoming so stark, it becomes a matter not merely of fairness, but a factor that threatens our democracy. A democracy is by definition a system where everyone has an equal voice, but now that the Supreme Court has declared through the Citizens United decision that corporations are people, our voices are a thready breath while their voices are a Bose speaker system. The last time any of us gave a million-dollar campaign contribution was, well, never. So, who are they representing? Not us. Therefore, it really isn't any surprise that the banks are now "too bigger to fail," Wall Street is lobbying vociferously to gut what little regulation has been put in place, and no one has been called to account or prosecuted for the financial crisis. How can someone be prosecuted when larceny and usury have been made legal?

"Oh, Patsy, just relax, let the rich be rich, who is it hurting after all?" you may be thinking. But let's look at some of the most disturbing information of all. If the rich, as in the days of the '20s, were merely recycling their wealth back into the American system, at least we'd know that all we need to do is shore up the labor movement again so the average Joe gets a square deal. But instead, the most egregious word in the new economy is "outsourcing."

According to Charles H. Ferguson, in his 2012 book "Predator Nation," "GE was a pioneer in outsourcing. ... President Obama's choice of Jeffrey Immelt, the company's CEO, to head a new White House economic advisory council in early 2011 came just a few months after Immelt had shut down a string of American lightbulb factories to shift production to China."

Even if it were true that trickle-down economics worked, the reality is that the spigot has been redirected so that the newfangled drip system goes to China and India.

"Over the last decade, moreover," Ferguson continues, "what is still being called 'outsourcing' has become something else. The shift to overseas purchasing and investment has spread from low-wage, labor-intensive activities to extremely high-technology, high-skill activities in both manufacturing and services. This development has serious implications for the economic future of the United States."

Charles Dickens begins "A Tale of Two Cities" with this: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Dickens meant it was the best of times for the powerful few -- and you can figure out the rest. That was in 1859. Is that really the direction we want to head? The Chicago teachers strike tried to answer that question with a definitive "No!"

We can debate the merits of what the teachers were striking about, but the issue here is the ability to have a collective voice. Few avenues remain for the middle class to be heard. The only viable one at this time is the opportunity for strength through the hard-fought right to have a labor union. This right must not be taken for granted.

Another avenue is representation through government. Unfortunately, the system is dramatically broken. Both sides of the political aisle are deeply indebted to their large campaign contributors and no longer truly represent the American people as a whole. The only solution is not more campaign finance reform -- ask McCain and Feingold how well that worked out the last time. What we really need is to make elections publicly financed so the voices they hear are analogous to a choir with each individual's uniqueness blending into a democratically harmonious tone, and leave behind the dissonant clang that is hurting all our ears.

Patsy Ouellette of Bakersfield is an eighth-grade English teacher at Norris Middle School. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.

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