When I was growing up my dad worked in the Mattel Toys factory near Los Angeles. My favorite part of visiting there was watching the machine that put hair onto the bald heads of toy dolls. My father never earned a lot but on just that one salary (my mom’s full-time job was raising four children) it was enough for them to own a home and a car, to have decent health insurance, to save for retirement, and to send three kids to public universities.
This was what middle-class economic life was like in America 40 years ago and it was much the same here in the Lockport GM plant. But all that has changed now and those changes, affecting all of us, are at the heart of the strike by GM workers, now in its fourth week.
The Mattel factory where my dad worked is long-closed, the jobs sent off to Mexico in search of cheaper labor. Lockport’s GM plant now employs one-tenth as many people as it once did and many of the families who remain struggle to make ends meet on two salaries.
We’ve long been told by corporate leaders that this decline was inevitable: American wages couldn’t compete in a global labor market, and more recently that live workers can’t compete with automation. Both of those are genuine threats, but there is another reason for all this downsizing, one that corporations and their politician allies like to leave out — greed.
For four decades the wealth of the U.S. has been relentlessly moving into the hands of the super-rich and away from average families. Today in America the richest 1% owns 40% of the nation’s wealth. Just three men alone — Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffet — have more money than half the population of the U.S. combined. That concentration of wealth in a few hands has come at a high price.
Young people today need to appreciate that it wasn’t always like this. You didn’t have to take on decades of debt just to go to college. You didn’t have to pay a $5,000 deductible just to get health care. You didn’t have to pay a week’s salary to have your toddler in day care. New mothers didn’t have to leave their newborns in the hands of others after 12 weeks. Before the ultra-wealthy figured out how to move the nation’s money into their pockets we weren’t all so desperately squeezed.
How did this happen?
One way was the explosion of corporate salaries at the top. When my dad worked at Mattel in the 1970s the CEO of a major corporation typically earned about 25 times as much as the lowest paid workers. If a line worker made $25,000 a year the CEO made about $625,000. Today that salary gap has increased tenfold. Today the average corporate CEO makes 250 times as much as line workers. If an employee at the bottom makes $40,000 per year the CEO makes an average of $10 million. The CEO of GM makes $22 million a year and she isn’t anywhere close to being the highest paid. Those increases came at the expense of everyone else.
Another way that the ultra-wealthy got there was by using their political power to change the tax system to their benefit. In the 1950s (the heyday of a growing American middle class) the wealthiest paid a federal income tax rate of 70%. Today it’s 23%, lower than what most of us pay.
Those were the funds that we used to invest in American prosperity, including affordable higher education and better health care. For 40 years politicians from Reagan to Trump told us that cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthiest was smart economics for everyone, that it would "trickle down" and make us all better off. But the real effect has been to create a new class of super billionaires and to make life harder for everyone else.
The GM strike today is one more battle in the longer fight to restore economic justice in a country where getting by has become harder with each generation. When GM went bankrupt a decade ago the company’s workers made deep sacrifices to help keep the corporation afloat, especially the new hires who were told they had to accept lower salaries. Now GM is making huge profits, earning more than $30 billion in the last six years, and the company’s workers, understandably, want their fair share.
The workers on the picket line here in Lockport and around the country are using the one point of leverage they have to force the company to negotiate in good faith — solidarity. That is what unions have always done and why they continue to be so urgent. The struggle that the GM workers are waging is not just for them, it is for all of us. We should support them in every way we can.
Jim Shultz, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center, is a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: email@example.com.