CEOs Get Rich With Layoffs; Those Laid Off Get New, Worse Jobs

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"If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves." —Winston Churchill

We talked yesterday about how the income gap may have caused, at least in part, the financial collapse. Today we get two new studies that shed even more light on the cataclysmic forces currently moving our nation. Here's the first headline: The Institute of Policy Studies says that executives at the 50 firms with the most layoffs during the economic crisis took home nearly $4 Million more than a typical CEO. The worst offenders include the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and Hewlett-Packard. And here's the second: The National Employment Law Project says the jobs that were lost in 2008-2009 were in higher wage industries, but job growth in 2010 has been disproportionately by industries with lower wages.

So, we have one listener who says she lost a great job and now works 40 hours a week with no benefits and makes so little that she is collecting food stamps. And Chelsea Nelson in Arkansas lost her secretarial job, searched for work for a year, and finally took work as a waitress at a truck stop restaurant. Her husband is now making only $8 an hour; they and their child are living with their parents, and fretting about the future.

All that is bad enough, tragic and saddening. But here's what makes it worse: Chelsea may even lose her hard-won low-paying waitress job. Why? Because a group of churches is boycotting the restaurant. Not because of safety violations, or even because the mac and cheese is too runny, but because the new owners are Muslim. For me, this is the most tragic part of the story. All Americans are struggling right now. Our nation is in crisis and we will only survive if we can help each other. As my grandfather used to say, a rising tide floats all boats. And who better to inspire us to serve our neighbors, to act the Good Samaritan, than our religious leaders.

But what are they doing instead? Encouraging parishioners to feel better about themselves by tearing down another faith. Fanning the flames of hatred and fueling the fire of ignorant prejudice. And Chelsea is a perfect example of how words can hurt. Words matter. Those sermons about the threat of Muslims in Arkansas become a boycott that could make Chelsea and her family casualties in an unnecessary culture war.

Before I end, though, let me also return to the small news items about companies that laid off thousands of workers paying millions more to their executives. To those CEOs, I remind you of the philosophy that made Henry Ford one of the most successful businessmen in history. Ford's premise was simple: his employees should earn enough to be able to buy the product they were making.

Our businesses have nothing to gain by gutting the middle class. Let us learn from history and not bring another financial collapse by widening the income gap beyond its current (already enormous) size.  And Americans have nothing to gain by turning on each other. A house divided will fall. Our foundation is already weakened and our behavior is currently kicking at the remaining struts.

Our generation is being tested. We live in a time of terrorism, war, economic hardship, and religious hatred. Will we rise above? What will ensuing generations say of how we handled the challenges we faced? Will they call us the greatest generation? Or will they remember us as the generation that chose the selfish path at every opportunity and fought each other at a time when we most needed unity?