The struggles in Madison have understandably focused attention on the wages and working conditions of public sector workers. Thankfully, it appears that these struggles have helped to promote greater solidarity between public and private sector workers. Now, we must build on this new solidarity to focus our collective energies on the bigger challenge: transforming a system that demands that workers (in both the public and private sector) accept ever worsening living and working conditions.
As many involved in the Wisconsin struggles have pointed out, there is plenty of wealth being produced—the problem is that those who are doing the producing are being increasingly denied access to it, both collectively and individually. For example, as the Economic Policy Institute points out:
U.S. productivity grew by 62.5% from 1989 to 2010, far more than real hourly wages for both private-sector and state/local government workers, which grew 12% in the same period. Real hourly compensation grew a bit more (20.5% for state/local workers and 17.9% for private-sector workers) but still lagged far behind productivity growth.
The chart below highlights this development. As one can see, the real issue isnt whether public sector workers make more or less than private sector workers (and the chart covers compensation which includes pay and benefits). Rather it is that workers together have been increasingly productive but receving an increasingly smaller share of the fruits of their labor. Those who are well place to benefit, those at the very top of the income scale, have of course done quite well. For example, the richest 1% received 56% of all the income growth between 1989 and 2007 (before the start of the recession). By contrast the bottom 90% got only 16%.
If we want to change this we are going to have to build a powerful political movement, one that is prepared to take on the powerful interests that are determined to keep spending on the military; privatizing our educational, health, and retirement systems; promoting corporate mobility; weakening labor laws; and confusing us all about the causes of existing trends.