The 5 Things We Want to Hear in The State of the Union

Jackie Tortora

President Barack Obama will give his annual State of the Union address to the American people next week. But what is the state of our union? The vast majority of America’s working families have experienced a raw deal in recent decades. Wages are falling, the gulf between the rich and everybody else is growing larger, we have a shrinking middle class and too many working families with no access to the American Dream.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Economic inequality doesn’t just happen. It’s manufactured by and for the 1% through bad economic policies crafted to make the rich even richer. And that can change, if our president lays out a bold and aggressive economic agenda to reverse these policies.

Here are five things we want to hear from President Obama’s State of the Union address next Tuesday night.

1. We will raise wages for America’s working families and tackle inequality.

The fundamental problem facing our economy is falling wages for 90% of America’s working people. In 2000, the median household income was $64,000. Today, it is $55,640. While middle-class families are working harder for less pay, wages for the top 1% have increased—by 144% since 1979.

Obama should call on Congress and the country to support raising wages and make emphatically clear that jobs should lift workers out of poverty, not trap them in it. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would help 30 million workers because increasing purchasing power will create more jobs and lift our struggling economy. But the minimum wage is just that—a bare minimum. Three principles should guide us: No one should make less than the minimum wage—that means taking on wage theft and providing for fair minimums for tipped and agricultural workers. No one should go to work every day and still be unable to provide for his or her family. And everyone should be able to bargain for fair living standards and a better life.

A big part of restoring economic security and reducing inequality is strengthening retirement security. With the decline of traditional pensions and workers having less income to save for retirement, now is the time to commit to increasing Social Security—our most effective retirement program. We need bipartisan agreement that retirement security is in fact in a crisis, and then we can start working together on solutions that strengthen, not cut, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

2. We will invest in America.

Our schools, bridges and roads are crumbling and we have more than enough workers ready to begin rebuilding and repairing our country. Obama should emphasize the necessity to invest in our country’s failing infrastructure. A new report card from America’s engineers gives our country’s infrastructure only a D+ grade. The United States must set aside funds to rebuild our country’s roads and bridges, to boost our manufacturing capacity, to retrofit our buildings and schools, to jump-start high-speed rail and to build an economy dedicated to meeting our 21st century energy needs.

3. We will end deportations and create a road map to citizenship for aspiring Americans.

Every day, more than 1,000 aspiring Americans are being deported and families are torn apart from each other for no reason other than the absence of a working immigration system in the United States. Because we cannot wait for Speaker John Boehner to see the moral and political light, we renew our call that President Obama should use the State of the Union address to ease the deportation crisis that is wrecking workforces, families and communities—and do it now.

President Obama must double down with his call for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform and it must include a road map to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the shadows, which is a critical step to strengthening workplace protections for all workers.

4. We will restore the right to join together and form unions.

President Obama must address the need to rebuild a strong middle class, especially by strengthening the freedom of workers to organize and collectively bargain. Employers that break the law and punish workers who try to organize together should be called out. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently filed a complaint against Walmart, for example, when they found the retail giant fired, disciplined and intimidated workers who walked off the job in protest of unfair workplace conditions. Collective bargaining helps workers, companies and communities by strengthening workplace protections and improving the working standards of everyone, everywhere.

5. We will renew emergency unemployment benefits.

While there are still not enough jobs for every worker who needs one, Obama must make clear that it is inexcusable that Republicans have refused to allow emergency unemployment benefits to be extended to more than 1.3 million jobless workers. For families that cannot find jobs after months and months despite wanting to work, these benefits are a lifeline—the difference between total hopelessness and a place to live and food on the table. Failure to extend this crucial program puts families who have been hit hardest at indefensible risk and imperils our recovery.

What’s the state of your union? What do you want President Obama to discuss next week?

Originally published at AFL-CIO Now.

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