Two dozen local activists took part last week in an ambitious three-day effort to formulate responses to the causes and consequences of economic inequality in the United States. The focus was on "training trainers" who can help build a movement in Vermont and across the country to obstruct the Bush/corporate agenda and to advance the cause of economic justice.
The series of workshops at Burlington High School was sponsored by the Peace & Justice Center and led by a veteran organizer with a Boston-based advocacy group. Participants, who varied in age from about 20 to 70, engaged in role-playing exercises intended to personalize the program's overarching topic of "War and the Economy." Visual presentations of complex economic and budgetary data were accompanied by discussions of micro initiatives that might effectively address the macro issues.
Thursday's introductory session began with Steve Schnapp of United for a Fair Economy asking the mainly female attendees to pair off for five-minute dialogues on how economic conditions have changed in their own communities in recent times. The reports back were uniformly negative.
Schnapp set the tone by noting that his hometown of Cambridge, Massachu-setts, enjoys a municipal budget surplus but is experiencing federal cutbacks in maintenance and services at public housing projects.
One workshop participant cited the recent sale -- by Rich Tarrant, who is now running for U.S. Senate -- of IDX, a successful homegrown medical software company, to General Electric Health Care. Vermont ownership has given way to multinational corporate control, enhancing the likelihood, the speaker warned, of worker displacement and decreased contributions to local groups.
Another member of the group said that real estate prices had escalated to the point where about half of Burlington's 40,000 residents now qualify for affordable-housing subsidies. Schnapp explained that "affordable" applies when housing costs are under 30 percent of a household's income.
Three teacher strikes took place this year in northern Vermont mainly in response to school boards' attempts to lower the costs of health insurance coverage, another workshop participant noted. Many residents of the affected communities were angered by the teachers' demands for retention of benefits that are unavailable to most Vermonters, the speaker said. She described their attitude as, "I don't have health care coverage, so why should teachers have it?"
Such a reaction is "totally understandable," Schnapp said, calling it symptomatic of "the race to the bottom."
The "help wanted" section of the Rutland Herald consumes considerably less newsprint today than a year ago, another dialogue partner reported. Others voiced complaints about the declining number of in-state students admitted to the University of Vermont.
No one acknowledged any positive economic developments, such as the integration into the Burlington-area workforce of large numbers of African refugees. Left unnoted, too, was Vermont's consistently low unemployment and poverty rates in comparison to the national averages.
Next came a skit in which 10 volunteers sat in a line of 10 chairs, facing the rest of the audience. The sitters represented the population of the United States, and the chairs stood for the amount of wealth in the country, Schnapp explained. He then had nine role-players sit on top of one another in three of the seats, while one white male was left to luxuriate in the seven other chairs. The vignette illustrated the concentration of 70 percent of the national wealth among 10 percent of the population, and the consequent elbowing for position by the remaining 90 percent of Americans.
Schnapp, a gray-bearded Bronx native with a mellow manner, flipped through an easel-full of charts and bar graphs that had also been distributed in packet form. One visual aid showed how military allocations dominate federal discretionary spending. Bush's proposed Pentagon budget for fiscal 2007 totals $419 billion, while his requests for education, health care and housing assistance amount to $56 billion, $49 billion and $29 billion, respectively.
In a drawing entitled "The Bush Vise," social programs were squeezed by jaws labeled "big increases in military spending" and "tax cuts (mainly for the wealthy)." The outcome was "huge deficits."
Schnapp also displayed a line graph charting the shifts in corporate profit rates from 1952 to 2004. A 6 percent pre-tax rate is considered the standard for a financially sound corporation, he said. That line remained above the target level until the mid-1970s, and then fell below it until the early 1990s. It dipped again toward the end of the Clinton era and has been heading back above the 6 percent mark since 2001, when Bush took office.
Schnapp implied there is a relationship between the rise and fall of corporate profits and the size of federal budget deficits, though he never made clear that correlation.
It was much easier to understand the sketch of a "Two-Headed Monster," subtitled "Myths & Misconceptions." One scary-looking figure was called "War Abroad" and was semi-circled by terms such as Arab Terrorists, Colombian Drug Lords, Axis of Evil and "Rogue" States. The co-joined goblin was named "War at Home." Its accompanying tags included Reverse Discrimin-ation, Youth Gangs and "Illegal" Immigrants.
No one in attendance suggested that Arab Terrorists might be more than bogeymen, or that a "rogue" state such as Somalia may pose an actual threat to neighboring nations' security. The complexities of Americans' response to affirmative action and illegal immigration were also not discussed.
A section of the handout headed "What Can We Do?" featured an observation by Martin Luther King Jr., demonstrating that his social critique extended far beyond racial issues. "We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values," King declared in this undated speech excerpt. "We must rapidly begin the shift from a 'thing-oriented' society to a 'person-oriented' society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
Offering their own action proposals, workshop members cited support for progressive candidates, activism in the form of demonstrations, and educational outreach to Americans who do not already share the perspective of United for a Fair Economy. As an example of the latter approach, Emma Mulvaney-Stanak of the Vermont Livable Wage Campaign noted that the Peace & Justice Center had conducted a workshop at the Vermont teachers' union conference last summer on introducing economic equality issues into public school curricula.
Last week's initial session was worthwhile, in the view of Joanne Brooking of Plainfield. "It's always beneficial to get with other people and refresh yourself," she said, adding she had "learned about some different perspectives." Brooking, the mother of four sons, works as a caretaker for a disabled elderly person and lives in poverty, she said.
Jasmine Jwa, a 21-year-old South Korean attending UVM and working as an intern at the Peace & Justice Center, said she hoped to take the knowledge acquired from the session back home. "Every country has these kinds of problems," Jwa said.