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'Enough is enough!': Income inequality, Bernie Sanders ... and unions

Americans are starting to recognize that change won't come without powerful collective action

You probably missed it. The TV news gave little if any news coverage to the presidential campaign announcement of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders ("Hey, we have 'serious' candidates like Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz to deal with," I'm guessing they'd say) but the speech was definitely an organic barnburner live from Ben-and-Jerry-land. Sanders wasn't more than a minute or two into it when he belted out what should become his campaign motto:

Today, we stand here and say loudly and clearly that; "Enough is enough. This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires, their Super-PACs and their lobbyists."

Enough is enough...when it comes to yawning gap between the Super Rich and everybody else in America. It's not surprising to hear this from Sanders, the only democratic socialist (to my knowledge) in the 2016 race for the White House. But other candidates have adopted some variation on this mantra: Income inequality was the only issue that Hillary Clinton raised in her campaign announcement video and was the topic of recent speeches. Over on the GOP side, the 2012-runner-up-turned-longshot Rick Santorum has ditched the man-on-dog stuff in favor of calling for a higher minimum wage. But Sanders is hitting this the hardest, so far.

"Today, we live in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world but that reality means very little for most of us because almost all of that wealth is owned and controlled by a tiny handful of individuals," he said. "In America we now have more income and wealth inequality than any other major country on earth, and the gap between the very rich and everyone is wider than at any time since the 1920s. The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time and it is the great political issue of our time. And we will address it."

But how? Government undoubtedly could help speed up the change we need. Sanders -- who's fired up the most-engaged base of the Democratic Party even though it may be impossible to overcome the name ID and accumulated goodwill of Clinton with its rank-and-file voter --  listed a number of fixes: A $1 billion program to create blue-collar jobs building infrastructure, a higher minimum wage, the end of so-called "free trade" deals, and higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Indeed, the once-ridiculed idea of a $15 living wage is on its way to reality in Seattle, Los Angeles and elsewhere. But there's no infrastructure job to repair a Congress that is likely to remain in reactionary Republican hands for the next few cycles, nor to fix the red-tinged conservative statehouses and town halls in many parts of America. And there are other limits to what government can achieve in a capitalist society.

Politics can't be the only way to bring about change. We need strong unions, And there's growing evidence that America is ready to welcome them back.

Earlier this year, a major study by two economists for the International Monetary Fund (not normally a bastion of liberal thought) found that the weakening of unions accounted for a whopping 50 percent of the rise in income inequality since 1980, and specifically about half of the surge of income flowing to the top 10 percent. It makes sense; the diminished clout and in some cases disappearance of unions gives workers less power to get their share of company profits, less of a say in business affairs, and less political clout to elect candidates -- like Bernie Sanders -- with pro-working-class agendas. In the United States, union membership today is about half of what it was when Ronald Reagan fired striking air-traffic controllers in 1981.

Unions grew not only less populated during those years, but less popular. Let's be honest: Some of that was the frenzy whipped up by the likes of Reagan and like-minded pols, or talk radio and Fox News, but some of it was self-inflicted, thanks to corrupt union bosses or legacies of discrimination. It was easy to forget what unions are needed for, but in the 21st Century more people are remembering. In the most recent Pew poll, support for unions has rebounded to a plurality, 48 percent, but for America to move forward that needs to grow higher.

No one -- well, almost no one -- wants to live in a world where a handful of billionaires bestow their obscene fortunes on their pet philanthropies, while the human beings who actually work for them wonder how they'll handle the next medical crisis or pay college tuition, or where the hell their pension disappeared. So far, those who've fought the hardest have been the folks with the least to lose -- like the fast-food workers who risked their jobs to change the conversation about what comprises a living wage in America. But what's been even more impressive is that way that other low-wage workers, like home health care workers and janitors, have stood with them in solidarity. Imagine if that solidarity spread across every worker who's seen her or his pay freeze while the CEO's check skyrockets. That would be a lot more powerful than all 25 or whatever 2016 presidential candidates, cubed.

Still, there are a lot of nattering nabobs, even here in supposedly blue-collar Philly, who just don't get it. They look at the political landscape and think that unions are somehow "them." And with all the success that the 1 Percent and their allies have had in beating down the workforce, it might look like that from their ivory tower. But the American worker and what we've earned -- a fair wage, health care and other benefits, and basic dignity -- isn't "them," but "us."  And look out, because we're on the move...again.