Author: Mary Kay Henry
The images of row upon row of stoic airline pilots, fed-up students and thousands of Americans marching through downtown Manhattan have captivated the nation.
Seemingly overnight, the organic, scrappy protests in the financial center of the world have blossomed into a national movement from Chicago to Los Angeles, calling attention to the gross inequality in our society and the unwillingness of our politicians to correct this imbalance.
The Occupy Wall Street actions are a potent example of what is happening across our country as the anger and frustration of ordinary Americans builds. While the media and pundits obsess over what the Occupy Wall Street protester's want, the protesters have already succeeded in shaking our conscience as a nation and forcing a national conversation about everything that is wrong with our economy.
The hard truth is that things are pretty lousy for most Americans right now. And while students, seniors and workers didn't cause our economic collapse, we're the ones paying the price.
It's been three years since Wall Street CEOs crashed our economy. When Wall Street was on its knees, the American taxpayers came to their rescue with trillions of dollars in bailouts and promise from the big banks that they'd invest in our recovery.
Instead, the banks used our hard-earned tax dollars to enrich themselves. They robbed millions of Americans of their jobs and their livelihoods. They refuse to invest in the small businesses that drive America's job creation and growth. And they continue to kick us while we're down by foreclosing on millions of families.
Today, the richest 5% of the population holds 72% of the wealth in our country. We have 25 million Americans looking for full-time work. And those Americans lucky enough to have a job have seen their hours slashed and their benefits cut. I recently met a worker in Chicago who told me he's been forced to feed his family by foraging for food in the dumpsters behind the grocery store by his house. Not because he's out of work but because his hours had been cut back and there simply wasn't enough money to keep a roof over his family's head, pay the electric bill, and put food on the table every night.
We have an entire generation of young people who were promised good jobs if they worked hard, played by the rules and attended college. They kept their end of the bargain and when they graduated they were left with no job prospects and a record amount of debt.
Americans watched in horror this spring as Republican politicians held our country hostage during the debt-ceiling debate to win harmful cuts to our communities and more tax breaks for millionaires. And this week House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor again turned their backs on the American people by refusing to even bring the American Jobs Act
up for a vote.
The anger of the American people has been brewing for quite some time, and now that it's boiled over there's no bottling it up. The importance of Occupy Wall Street can't be measured by any set of demands. What's more important to understand are the values that unite the protesters and their authentic understanding of what has gone wrong in our economy.
We can begin to right the wrongs of our economy and respond to the growing demands of the American people by putting our country back to work and by holding Wall Street and big corporations accountable for the damage they've inflicted on us all.
When Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was asked what one demand on Washington the Occupy Wall Street protesters should make right now, he didn't hesitate a moment before saying: create jobs.
We can't begin to fix what is wrong with our economy without creating good jobs. We have work that needs doing in this country and millions of Americans looking for full-time work. It's time to put the two together to make America a stronger nation. And it's time to use the money being made on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms across the country to put Americans back to work.
Congress can begin by passing the American Jobs Act
and immediately put Americans to work rebuilding our outdated and dangerous roads and bridges and ensuring our kids have first-class schools. We can invest in our communities to keep teachers in our classrooms, police on the beat, health-care workers at our hospitals and clinics, and ensure that we have enough firefighters to protect our communities.
The 2.1 million nurses, janitors, school-bus drivers and other members of the Service Employees International Union stand arm in arm with the peaceful Occupy Wall Street protestors. While unions cannot claim credit for Occupy Wall Street, SEIU members are joining the protesters in the streets because we are united in the belief that our country needs a change.
Nobody can predict what's next for the Occupy Wall Street movement. And no one institution or person should try to exert their pressure on this inspiring collective of people.
The importance of the Occupy Wall Street protests lies in the simple fact that all it takes is a small group of courageous people to light a spark and forever change the arc of history. The auto workers in Flint, Mich., lit that spark in the 1930s through their sit-down strikes and forever changed American industry. The civil-rights activists lit that spark when their sit-ins forced us to confront the racial inequality that poisoned our nation.
We saw that spark in Tahrir Square and across the Middle East this Arab Spring as a few brave people inspired millions of fed-up citizens to challenge their governments and demand better lives. It's what I've witnessed for the past 30 years as a union organizer watching working people stick their necks out and stand publicly for a union to win a chance at a better life for themselves and their families.
And it's what countless Americans see in this growing Occupy Wall Street movement. They see the opportunity to restore the very American notion that each of our citizens deserves a shot at reaching his or her own dreams, of finding a good job, and leaving the next generation better off.
The people are finally speaking. Now it's up to our leaders and CEOs to listen and respond.