The Paradox of Social Progress and Economic Reaction

New York state is on the verge of becoming the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage, President Obama is weighing whether to explicitly support gay and lesbian unions, and the issue is becoming more of a divisive headache for Republicans than a theme to rally their base. Time is not on the right's side, either, because sexual orientation is just less and less of a big deal for younger voters.

Sunday's New York Times gave three whole pages to a Father's Day story about an extended family made up of a mom, her toddler, the lad's donor dad and his gay partner. In a few more years, this story would be no more newsworthy than a piece about how divorced and remarried straight couples and their children manage complex relationships that go well beyond traditional nuclear families.

It's worth reflecting on two questions. First, how did we make such stunning progress in three decades on issues involving tolerance and inclusiveness? And how is it that, during the same period, we have gone steadily backwards on a whole set of economic issues? The society has become more inclusive in according rights to women, African-Americans, the LGBT community, people with disabilities -- and far more unequal and precarious economically.

This is not to say, of course, that the struggles for tolerance and inclusion are over. Bigotry still persists; it is especially vicious when it comes to immigrants. And immigrant rights issues connect to economic issues. At a time of dwindling opportunity and security, immigrants, who can easily be exploited and compelled to work for less than their economic worth, are sometimes seen as an economic threat to the locals.

Still, to invoke Dr. King, there is little doubt that the arc is bending toward justice. The momentum is in the direction of more acceptance, less bigotry.

So, what happened? It's not as if homophobia and racism were exactly pushovers.

The entire social order based on white privilege was very handy if you happened to be caucasian. Blacks did all the scut work and they did it for cheap wages, reserving the good jobs for white folks. Likewise, male privilege: very convenient for men. And gays and lesbians were the last group who could be openly ridiculed even in polite liberal company.

What happened, simply, was political struggle -- and from the bottom up. To review the various documentaries commemorating the 50th anniversary of the sit-ins and freedom rides is to appreciate the sheer impossibility of the odds, and the extraordinary personal bravery. To challenge the racist order, especially in the south was to risk economic ruin and death. Feminists and gays were the object of scorn. Disability rights were not even on the radar screen. Individual acts of gays coming out slowly engendered compassion. The HIV epidemic moved from an object of disgust to one of empathy.

But these individual acts of heroism only gained traction because they combined with a social movement. They changed norms, then laws, which reinforced the shift in norms.

Slowly, we have become a kinder, more inclusive society.

Why, then, are we going backwards when it comes to economic justice? It comes down to power. Owners of financial wealth have become more and more politically powerful, while the countervailing movements have become steadily weaker.

I recently wrote about the bravery of the housekeeper at the Times Square Sofitel who reported the assault by Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But she could take this step without fear because she was not alone. The Times Square Sofitel, like nearly every one of New York's large hotels, is unionized. And the union, Local 6 of the hotel and restaurant workers, backed by a powerful hotel and motel trades council, is one of the strongest local unions anywhere in America -- not strong because of union bosses, but because the union is intrinsic to the daily life of the workplace.

When the manager of the Sofitel balked at letting some housekeepers join a vigil in support of their colleague on the morning that Strauss-Kahn was to be arraigned, workers at the hotel told him they would suspend their jobs and sit down in his lobby. He quickly relented.

A housekeeper in a non-union hotel would think twice about complaining about an assault from a rich and powerful guest. She could get fired. In the "hospitality" industry, by definition, the guests come first. But members of Local 6 are protected by a contract that requires due process, and a whole system of shop stewards called union delegates who assure that rights are enforced.
A housekeeper at a non-union hotel in much of America makes eight or nine dollars an hour. In Manhattan, a union housekeeper makes almost $25 an hour, or $50,000 a year, enough to live a middle class life, even in New York. The difference between a living wage and a starvation wage affects the client's hotel bill by a few bucks.

There is no good reason why all people in service occupations, from Wal-Mart clerks to nurse aides and pre-k teachers, can't be paid a living wage. But this will take political struggle and social movements -- just as progress in the battles for inclusion did.

As bankers call the tune in both parties, and as the economy becomes more precarious for the working middle class, the political base of a just society needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. For all the hopes we've placed in the Obama administration, it won't be built from the top down.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a Senior Fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.