Today we live in an increasingly unequal society. Inequality is greater now than it has been at any time in the last century, and the gaps in wages, income, and wealth are wider in the U.S. than they are in any other democratic and developed economy. (The Nation; Brookings; Forbes; Economic Policy Institute; US News & World Report; PEW)
Between 1979 and 2007, the real incomes of the richest 1 percent almost tripled, while the real incomes of regular households inched up only about 25 percent—and that was almost all due to an increase in labor force participation and hours worked.
Meanwhile, the richest 1 percent – some call them the Billionaire Class — owns about a third of the nation’s wealth; and the top 5 percent claim over 60 percent. Their share has grown steadily over the last generation. And since the Great Recession, almost all of the gains of the recovery have flowed only to the richest Americans.
Among the world’s wealthy countries, the U.S. ranks dead last on all of the relevant inequality measures. And our inequality is growing at a faster rate than that of any other major country.
Somerville, Massachusetts is a city of about 78,000 just north of Boston that is currently experiencing intense gentrification, out-of-control housing speculation, and major corporate real estate development in several neighborhoods.
The city has a vibrant community of resistance arising out of decades of grassroots struggle and the “Occupy Somerville” movement. Two years ago, we finally gained a majority of the seats on the Board of Aldermen (equivalent to a city council) opening up new possibilities for progressive change.
Despite our strong progressive base, economic inequality in Somerville is increasing. Billion dollar corporations like Federal Realty Investment Trust claim that they can’t afford union wages and benefits. Private developers only want to build luxury housing for the rich. And far too many business owners still engage in wage theft and job misclassifications to avoid paying fair wages or providing good benefits.
Seizing on this opportunity, Good Jobs Somerville (a loose grouping of local labor and community activists) collected more than 200 signatures from residents urging the Board of Aldermen to hold a public hearing on inequality which was backed by a broad coalition of unions and community organizations. 
After a spirited public hearing on December 10, the Somerville Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to support four bills before the state Legislature which in a small way would help to address the problems caused by rising income inequality.
Speakers at the hearing testified about the seriousness of the problem and in support of four state initiatives that would benefit our community:
Gina Garro, a teacher and MTA member, talked about the need for a new amendment to our state’s constitution to create an additional tax of four percentage points on annual incomes above one million dollars. The new revenue from this “Millionaire’s Tax” would be invested in quality public schools, affordable higher education, and improvements in public transportation.
Sagar Tivari, a fast food worker at Dunkin Donuts, described how hard it was to live in Somerville on low pay. Sagar seeks passage of new living wage legislation for employees of big box retail and fast food companies so that people like him who work for large, profitable corporations can earn a living wage of at least $15 an hour.
Alex Galimberti, a Somerville restaurant worker and local leader of the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC), reaffirmed the city’s previous commitment to the elimination of the subminimum wage for tipped workers. ROC is supporting legislation at the statehouse to end the subminimum wage and provide restaurant workers with the same hourly minimum wage as workers in all other industries in Massachusetts.
Marya Axner, director of the Jewish Labor Committee and Alex Pirie, from Immigrant Service Providers talked about the need to pass new legislation for paid family and medical leave to ensure that workers are not forced to choose between work and the well-being of their children and other family members.
Numerous others from the community stood up to testify about how the high cost of housing, low wages, redevelopment and displacement, and skyrocketing health care costs was affecting them and their families.
Although State Senator Pat Jehlen, and Representatives Denise Provost and Christine Barber all spoke after the hearing in support of the bills, passing them at the state house (and winning more comprehensive changes at the local level) will require even broader unity between labor, community and faith-based organizations.
Somerville’s Board of Aldermen took an important symbolic first step to support passage of the above state initiatives which, if passed, will improve working families’ lives. And in doing so, the board acknowledged the significance of economic inequality and its corrosive impact on our community. Now the hard work must begin to win very specific municipal reforms so that our city government can more aggressively use its power to make sure the wealth we create stays in our community and goes to where it’s most needed – Somerville’s hard-working families.
(1) Supporters included: The Immigrant Service Providers Group/Health, Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District, New England Regional Council of Carpenters, Restaurant Opportunities Center, Somerville Community Corporation, Somerville Municipal Employees Association, SEIU Local 32BJ, SEIU Local 888, Tufts Labor Coalition, UFCW Local 1445, Heat and Frost Insulators Local 6, Welcome Project, and the Jewish Labor Committee.