Les Leopold is the Co-Founder & Executive Director of the Labor Institute in New York. He's also the author of 4 books and is a frequent contributor to outlets like The Huffington Post, Truthout, and Alternet. Leopold is speaking in Wilmington at ILA Union Hall on Tuesday, 9/19 at 7:00pm and at DeLoach Hall at UNCW on Wednesday, 9/20 at 5:30pm.
His discussion is titled What Happened to the American Dream? and springs from his most recent book, Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice. Leopold was brought to town by The Southeast North Carolina Central Labor Council, UNCW Departments of Sociology & Criminology, Psychology, and Communication Studies, and the Wilmington Progressive Book Club. Listen to our conversation above, and see an extended transcript below.
Gina: What is "runaway inequality"?
Les: Runaway inequality is the increasing gap between the wealthiest among us and everybody else. And the reason this is so important is, we believe that runaway inequality and its causes tie together much of what most of us are worried about. We think it is the driving force of our economy. So we're trying to introduce two new concepts into the public debate. One of them is runaway inequality and the other one is financial strip mining, which we think is the cause of runaway inequality. And we think it's the cause of many, many other problems that we face.
Gina: Your goal is economic justice.
Gina: And what is economic justice? What does that look like?
Les: That's a great question. It's a basic notion of fairness. Let me give you an example. When the American people are polled to ask them what a fair gap is between the top CEOs and the average worker, a strong Republican will say twelve to one, a strong Democrat will say five to one, for an average of seven to one. Today it's nearly 800 to 1. So economic justice and fairness would mean bringing down that gap to a reasonable level so that more of us could enjoy the fruits of what is a very, very big and prosperous economy. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Yet, many of us- most of us- are struggling. So economic fairness is to take some of that struggle away.
Gina: Some people would say that a CEO or a business corporation has the freedom- the right- to pay its CEO as much as it wants. What do you say to that?
Les: They do. And we have the right to pass laws and rules that limit that. In 1970 the ratio between the CEO and the average worker was forty-five to one. So that's like one home for you, 45 for them. One car for you, 45 for them. Now it's nearly 800 to one. How did it change? It wasn't just because the CEO has the freedom to pay themselves whatever they want. What happened was some very, very important rules changed.
It's the rules by which the economy is set up that got the change. Finance became incredibly deregulated after about 1980. The ability for corporations to buy back their own stock and therefore boost the value of their own shares. Most CEOs, the vast majority of their pay comes from stock incentives. So they now have the ability to manipulate the price of the stock through this thing called stock buybacks, which were basically illegal before 1982. Now, you could argue that that's OK, that that's the best arrangement of our resources and that it will trickle down to all of us eventually-you can make that argument but you can't make the argument that it has anything to do with freedom.
We've had a conscious redistribution of wealth from basically the middle and the lower end of our working people to the top. We've seen wages stall since the late 1970s. The real buying power of the average worker has gone flat since the late 1970s. But the money going into the hands of the top one percent has soared. So there's been enormous redistribution of wealth in the United States from the middle to the top.
Gina: Is money a limited resource or is it an unlimited resource?
Les: The way to look at it is that our resources are in proportion to our level of productivity. Productivity is the measure of how much the economy produces per hour of labor. And that figure has been going up steadily since 1947. We produce almost three times as much per hour as we did in 1947 and we have 100 million more workers than we had in 1947. An enormous gap appeared- productivity kept rising and wages went flat. Imagine your take home pay- if you double that, that's what you would get if wages continued to rise with productivity. So there's been an enormous, phenomenal change in how wealth is distributed in America
Gina: I've seen I've seen your work described as an anti-Wall Street movement. Is Wall Street the focus?
Les: Yes. You know, by the time the crash took place in 2007-2008 Wall Street had five percent of the workforce in the country and was able to get 40 percent of the profits. It's become this gargantuan wealth extractor. There's a collusion between Wall Street and top CEOs to basically remove as much wealth as possible from every corporate entity, from students, from communities through the various financing plans they need to operate their system.
Gina: Let's talk about mass incarceration. How does that add to the inequality problem?
Les: If you look at a chart of the prison population from 1910, you will see in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population, it's roughly flat. It doesn’t change at all until Runaway Inequality hits. It doesn't go up in the 1960s. It doesn't go up at all in the 70s. As soon as Runaway Inequality takes off around 1980, so does the prison population. And now we have the largest prison population in the entire world-both in percentage and absolute number. Why did that happen? What you'll see is that prison is a place where we warehouse the poor. Instead of a war on poverty, which is what we trying to do in the 60s and early 1970s, we've given up on that. Now, if you're poor, you're on your own. There's not going to be any war on poverty.
Gina: What is the Labor Institute?
Les: The Labor Institute is this gargantuan think tank on the banks of the Hudson River with five employees. We design educational programs for trade unions and community organizations. Primarily in two areas- Occupational Safety and Health and Popular Economics. We've been around since 1976 providing this kind of information.
Gina: Is it a political organization?
Les: No. We're strictly educational. We don't do any lobbying. No, we don’t get involved in political campaigns.
Gina: Do you have any interest in the Labor Institute or about the lack of education about labor and economics in our elementary and middle and high schools?
Les: We do a lot of train the trainer programs for local union officials, community organization staff and so on. In the 50s and 60s it was quite common for high school kids to learn about labor unions-now not so much. Now hardly at all. We tend to design these train the trainer programs that can multiply themselves rather than doing the training directly.
Gina: What do you want more people to understand?
Les: Here's what we're trying to do. We’ve been setting up these train the trainer programs around the country and drawing people into them. We have people are volunteering all over the place to become part of it. And that, we think, can help-if we get enough people out there laying the foundational education. We think we can make an enormous difference. We're really only five people right in New York City. We cannot set up a new national organization. That's not our role. But we can lay the basis for that. We can have people discuss what this agenda should look like. What economic justice and fairness should be.
Gina: Labor unions-the idea of unionizing, was it always a political issue?
Les: Unions were under attack from the very moment they started in the 1840s all the way through until the New Deal when, basically, union organizing was legalized. When the anti-trust legislation was passed it was used against unions, to break up unions and to get injunctions against their organizing as opposed to large corporations. I think the point of unions is this: it's not really a political issue, it's a movement issue. People organize unions because they become part of a mass of people.
Unions are not going to prevail because of a little bit of lobbying here and there and a little bit more political protection- they're only going to blossom again if they are part of the next upsurge, which I think is going to be an upsurge around inequality and Wall Street. I think that's what it's going to be about. That's what it has already been about- Occupy Wall Street, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and even Donald Trump. It's against the status quo. When that turns into a mass movement, unions will grow again.
Gina: The subtitle of your book is An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice. Can you share some examples of the guidance that you provide?
Les: Well, we provide two kinds of guidance. One kind is a discussion of what a collective agenda would look like and the other is an organizing strategy. What would a common agenda look like? What would an economic justice and fairness agenda look like? We put that out for debate at the end of the book. The second thing we talk about is how we should be organized.
We need a common analysis and a common agenda. So that's one piece that I think we can make progress on. We've been doing a lot of polling on that. We've been testing it out. We think runaway inequality is a good common analysis framework. People get it pretty readily and they make sense of a lot of different issues.
We need a broad common educational infrastructure. Training those 30,000 trainers. I don't know if I'll live long enough to see all 30,000 but I'm hoping we can get there.
We need some sort of common national organization. I'd like to be able to go to Pittsburgh or Pensacola or Poughkeepsie or Pomona and walk into a common organization dedicated to reversing runaway inequalities at the state, local, and national level.
Progressives have kind of accepted a lot of narrow visions of what can be done. It's like we don't think we can build this movement. So we stay inside our silos and try to make very concrete progress on our particular issue. We have to make those communities more porous and linked together by having a new identity of being a movement builder.
Gina: Is it possible that the most recent couple of generations might be unable to focus on these kinds of issues because of technology or materialism?
Les: It's funny, you know, I think that's been said since the 1880s. Every generation is somehow going to be out of it because of the rapid new technologies that are coming to play. But if you look at the Sanders campaign, look at his followers- they're young. They want this.
Gina: If a person doesn't have some foundational information about, like, for instance, what should the ratio be between worker and CEO pay, or if a person doesn't understand the intricacies of Wall Street, it may be hard to understand some of the issues that you bring up. This is a problem, folks may not understand your argument or how to answer it because they don't know the basics. They don't know. They don't even have the foundational information to to hear your argument.
Les: Here's what we're trying to do. We're modeling ourselves after the Populist movement of the 1880s and 1890s where they sent 6,000 educators- they call them lecturers- into the field to help explain how Wall Street was ripping off farmers, small farmers black and white, in the South and Midwest primarily. They built their entire movement around education. So we figure with population growth, we need about 30,000 educators. And we've set up a web site called RunawayInequality.org. And we've been asking people to sign up and we've been trying to figure out ways to help them become trainers themselves in their own organizations, in their own communities. About 500 have so far in the last few months, have signed up to become educators.
So we need about twenty nine thousand five hundred more to reach our goal. So that's what we're working on. And so the more, so these people learn how to do workshops- non lecture workshops- based on the curriculum we've designed in Spanish and in English. And they'll be able to do- after we get done training them- they can do half an hour to eight hours.
We've been setting up these train the trainer programs around the country and drawing people into them. We have people are volunteering all over the place to become part of it. So we're quite excited about it. And that, we think, can help-if we get enough people out there laying the foundational education, just exactly what you said, what you asked in your question-we can do that. We think we can make an enormous difference. We're really only five people right in New York City. We cannot set up a new national organization. That's not our role. But we can lay the basis for that. We can have people discuss what this agenda should look like. What economic justice and fairness should be. The same kinds of questions you've been asking me, we ask in these workshops. And it's quite exciting.
One particular activity we do is, we have people working in groups of 4 or 5 and at the end we pass out a blank sheet of paper and we say, OK draw your community, you know, as if Runaway Inequality had ended, had been reversed- what would your community look like? And it's really remarkable. I thought this was hokey and it wasn't going to lead to much, but people really draw these incredibly vibrant communities, they get up explain it to each other, and you can just see that people have this open sense of justice and fairness. And there are lots of changes they want to make. You know, it's not an accident Trump is the president. He promised a lot of changes and people are demanding change.
They think the status quo is screwing them.
Transcript assistance from PopUpArchive and Production Assistant Lindsay Wright