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The progressive vision: We all do better when we all do better

The rallying cry of the labor movement is “an injury to one is an injury to all.” The Bible teaches us that “I am my brother’s keeper.” Benjamin Franklin implored fellow delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence saying, “We must hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” And Paul Wellstone used to always say, “We all do better when we all do better.”

What is happening in Wisconsin, Minnesota and across the country is not simply a battle to balance budgets. It is a battle between two very different stories and visions of society.

On one side is a progressive story of community, collective rights and responsibilities.

On the other side is a conservative story of competition, winners and losers, and individual choice and risk.  This conservative story says, “You’re on your own, good luck. You’re alone — make it work.”

The conservative’s story tries to convince us that free markets, deregulation, limited government, no unions, no taxes, and turning a blind eye and deaf ear to those unemployed or less fortunate (or blaming them for bad life choices) will solve our problems.

Competition and free markets
It says the most fortunate — the wealthiest individuals and corporations — deserve their enormous wealth even if it means so many others go with less, for we are told that is what competition and free markets are all about.  

This conservative story pits one group of workers against another. It demonizes immigrants, Muslims, and any opinion that challenges free market fundamentalism.

It says if I have been hurt, you should hurt as well.   

So when Gov. Scott Walker from Wisconsin refuses to accept public worker concessions until they also give up their collective voice and rights — or when media commentators ask, “Why should public sector workers enjoy rights and protections that other workers do not?” — we hear the same conservative story, a story that drives our politics and community life to the lowest denominator.

But there is also a progressive story. It says all workers deserve a right to join together for mutual aid and benefit — whether private sector workers or public sector workers, whether through a union, a co-op, or an association.

The right to create a union
This right is the law of our land, enshrined in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which protects the right of “concerted activity” — the right to act collectively as workers to negotiate in good faith and secure decent wages, benefits and working conditions without fear of reprisal. This is not a “union right,” but rather the right to create a union.

Over the past 50 years, many states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, have extended this collective right to public employees. Now several radical conservative governors and legislatures are trying to strip this fundamental right away.

The progressive story says we all have collective responsibility for one another and must share the burden in times of distress and challenge.

Budgets should not be balanced on the backs of workers, the middle class, or those who are most vulnerable when the most fortunate contribute little or nothing.

Wealthy pay a smaller percentage of income in taxes
The wealthiest corporations are sitting on over $2 trillion in cash reserves, are earning record-breaking profits, and are still not hiring American workers. Forbes magazine recently reported that many of the largest U.S. corporations paid little or no taxes, including General Electric with profits of $10.3 billion and Exxon Mobil with $45.2 billion. The wealthiest Americans — the multi-billionaires and millionaires — pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than the teachers, firefighters, janitors and snow-plow drivers now under attack.

Progressives believe those who are blessed with so much also need to share the burden.  Progressives believe in respect for the dignity of all people and that all children matter.

We should be able to love whom we want, freely worship the God of our faith, and be able to pursue the American Dream regardless of where we come from without being told that if you are gay or Muslim or an immigrant you and your human rights do not matter.

The choice we face in these “budget battles” is whether we will look out for the least of these  brethren, or if we only aspire to look out after ourselves.

I remain hopeful that we will reach higher. That we will tell that age-old story that each of us matters, live by the golden rule to do unto others what we would want done unto us, and remind the world and each other that indeed “we all do better when we all do better.”

Erik Peterson is a longtime progressive political activist and the director of education and labor programs for Wellstone Action.

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Comments (8)

There's another factor supporting the "Progressive vision." The Bible, itself, in the words of the Old Testament Prophets and in the life ministry and teaching of Jesus, himself, makes it clear that there is, in simple human terms, a very high price to be paid for Israel and Judea (and, presumably, every other society) if they continue to protect the rich and ignore the needs of the poor.

History is littered with the destruction of such nations. America, in the decades following WWII up to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, was a nation in which the lives of the average person and, increasingly the lives of those disadvantaged in various ways gradually grew better and better. We built the world's largest middle class and the world's highest standard of living.

But a few among us, psychologically dysfunctional enough to believe that their own happiness could only be found in accumulating money and power and, who when that turned out not to be the case, were only able to assume that MORE money and MORE power must be the answer to their empty unhappiness and abiding insecurities, have increasingly convinced the general population that making fabulously wealthy people such as themselves happy (something which is impossible to do) would bring happiness to us all.

It will not, but the idea is VERY seductive.

I fear for how far the general population of this nation must sink before some of us realize that the voices we have most trusted have not been seeking to bring us up to their own level (and never intended to do so), but were only encouraging us to, in effect, drill holes in our own boats so that they could scoop up what we threw overboard in our vein attempts not to sink.

Once the damage is done and we have sunk low enough to wake people up to who it is that's been stealing their lives from them, the fabulously wealthy, Wall Street, wealthy corporations, and their sycophantic media acolytes (not Democrats and "big government"), perhaps we can begin to rebuild a more "progressive" nation from the ashes that are left, but I fear for how much pain and suffering will be inflicted on the average American (let alone the disadvantaged) before we finally reach that point.

But the truth laid out by Jesus and prophets remains: progressive nations - those who support and reward individual creativity and initiative, but who balance that out with care for the disadvantaged folks within their borders - are the nations that remain stable and last.

Our present course is a slippery slope in the wrong direction. The distribution of wealth; growing number of poor; slides in education internationally, and crumbling infrastructure (with no plan or funding to fix it) are all factors that do not portend well for America.

Worse yet, the forces that keep us going in this direction are well funded and well organized; and those could change chage the direction have ceded the battle by either inattention, inaction, remaining uninformed...or just not even caring.

Keep saying joining a union is a right. Free speech was not always accepted as a right. The right to practice the religion of your choice was not always right. Someone, actually many someone's had to assert these rights and not back down to those who denied there is any such right. Conservatives want to deny the right to organize, just as they fought against every right held by someone who wasn't them, so we have to keep saying it. That has to be our answer to why anybody should be allowed to join a union and bargain collectively -- it's a right.


I was starting to get engaged in your column until I hit this pothole:

"This conservative story pits one group of workers against another. It demonizes immigrants, Muslims, and any opinion that challenges free market fundamentalism."

I had to stop reading, and skip to the comments.


The Bible, the old testament prophets, and Jesus all call for people, not federal governments, to love, feed, and help the poor.

Steve,"We the People of the


"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

We the people ARE the government and one of our charges is to "promote the general Welfare". How is giving every advantage to the small elite, while stripping every safety net for those in need, promoting the general welfare, let alone insuring domestic tranquility?

Does the welfare system need to be revamped? Certainly, there is much waste and abuse. Does the tax system need to be revamped? Certainly, loopholes that allow highly profitable corporations to pay zero dollars in tax need to be closed. Are we spending too much on the military? Most certainly, we need to stop being the world's police, demand more countries put skin in the game and pull our troops from many of the bases in other countries. Europe, Germany, especially, can pay for their common defense. Unfortunately, the military is a major employer, and with more and more jobs going overseas or dropped completely, there's no place for the soldiers and supplier's employees to go. Job creators need to start creating America.

There is much work to be done in this country, but until we get past all the partisan bickering, we'll continue in our slow, downward spiral.

"We all do better when we all do better."

FDR considered the right "unthinkable and intolerable".

“Meticulous attention should be paid to the special relations and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government….The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.

"A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such action looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable and intolerable.”

FDR, 1937

Steve Rose - to quote another important document "We the people,...

To quote another organized labor icon, ex-plumber, and former AFL-CIO President, George Meany (Dec. 1955),

"...4) Certain business leaders may consider "big government" or socialism more of an immediate threat to their interests than communism. Are they allowing themselves to be deluded by their own propaganda to the effect that organized labor in this country is in favor of big government or the nationalization of industry?

Nothing could be further from the truth. The main function of American trade unions is collective bargaining. It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government. Unions, as well as employers, would vastly prefer to have even Government regulation of labor-management relations reduced to a minimum consistent with the protection of the public welfare...