The late Sen. Paul Wellstone once said, "Politics isn't about money or power games; it's about the improvement of people's lives."
By that standard, our nation's political system isn't working very well for working people. Our middle class is shrinking, and the current generation of young people is the first in 100 years to expect they won't be as well off as their parents. Working people need more than a new president who will pledge to sign good legislation. We need a champion who will work every day to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots in our country―and advocate for good jobs, health care for all and retirement security.
Tuesday night, the AFL-CIO will host the seven leading Democratic contenders at Chicago's Soldier Field in front of a record crowd for a candidates forum of more than 12,000 union members and their families. The forum will be broadcast live on MSNBC television and XM Radio beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern. The size and excitement of this Chicago crowd are an indication of how ready working people are―despite the real reports of cynicism and distrust of Washington―for a president who will lead the change America needs.
All the candidates appearing at Soldier Field have demonstrated a commitment to working family issues. But we need to hear more about how each of them will turn us around from the damage done by seven years of an anti-worker White House and rebuild America's strength as well as our people's confidence. Over the past three weeks, workers from around the nation have enthusiastically submitted questions to the AFL-CIO's Working Families Vote 2008 website―and then voted on questions they hope to hear asked by Keith Olbermann, the MSNBC moderator. A number of union members at Soldier Field will pose their own questions, too.
While the actual questions won't be revealed until Tuesday night, workers' concerns are clear. We received nearly 500 questions about how the candidates will ensure that our nation is creating good jobs at good wages. And it's no wonder. Average real hourly wages today are only 15 percent higher than they were in 1980, despite a 67 percent increase in worker productivity. When you take inflation into account, the median U.S. household income fell several percentage points during Bush's first six years in office, and more people ended up in poverty. Meanwhile, the average CEO makes 411 times what the average worker is paid.
Many workers asked what the candidates will do to keep good jobs in this country and penalize companies that send them overseas. Living standards are falling as corporations push them down and good jobs are exported to other countries or outsourced to private contractors. Our nation has lost 3 million family-supporting manufacturing jobs since 2001. If these trends continue, experts predict that by 2010, about 30 percent of America's workers will make less than poverty-level wages.
More than 500 people wrote in to ask the candidates how they are going to solve the health care crisis. How are we going to rein in out-of-control HMOs? Or make sure every child is covered? Today, 45 million people don't have health insurance. And since the year 2000, the cost of an annual family health insurance premium has increased by more than 81 percent in nominal terms, reaching a shocking $11,480 per year―almost the entire yearly pay for a full-time minimum wage worker!
Working people also want to know what the next president will do to protect our economic safety net for families. And they clearly want to know about an exit strategy from Iraq. Many union members have served in Iraq, and many more have children and neighbors there.
Our nation is at a tipping point, and union members understand that the best program available supporting the middle class is a union card. After all, union members earn 30 percent more than people without a union and are much more likely to have health insurance and guaranteed pensions. So it is not surprising that we also received a number of questions about what the candidates will do about corporations that violate workers' freedom to join and form unions.
There's been a lot of buzz in recent weeks that Sen. Wellstone might have dismissed as a byproduct of the "power games" such superficial issues as Clinton's clothes, Edwards' hair or Obama's style. Tuesday night, working people will be able put that aside so they can ask the candidates about bread-and-butter issues that will improve people's lives. We very much look forward to hearing the answers.