The fight for America needs less Obama and Romney and more about Mee Lin Youk


Every day that we get distracted by the newest shiny object, whether it's Romney's 47 percent comments or Obama's 27 percent (I'm feeling charitable today) debate performance or the results of the 37 different contradictory polls that come out every single day, is another day that we're not talking about the issues that have been dragging down real working Americans for the last 30 years, regardless of which party is in the Oval Office.

My colleague across the hall at the Inquirer, Monica Yant Kinney, had a must-read column todayabout a working homeowner named Mee Lin Youk. She is in no way part of any culture of dependency. All she wanted was for her employer -- American Airlines, maybe you've heard of them? -- to stop making things harder:

For years, Mee Lin Youk could calculate her professional worth to the penny: $21 an hour, plus perks like free flights and health insurance to soothe the pain from loading planes for American Airlines at Philadelphia International Airport.

Nothing has changed about the fleet service clerk's physically taxing job except the pay: An outsourcing firm is now offering just $8.50 an hour with no benefits, if Youk and her coworkers decide to reapply.

After writing three columns in a row about how the unemployed remain a legion of suffering in spite of jobs reports and campaign claims, I found Youk's overnight economic devaluation to be an equally infuriating story of our time.

As worried as she is about being laid off, can any 54-year-old with a mortgage afford to stay on the job under such onerous terms? "Good workers make good companies," Youk reasons, "and good pay makes good workers.

The American Dream was once stunning in its simplicity -- that this was a nation where people who worked hard and played by the rules could expect to do better over time. Today, the dream has died, the America social compact in pieces. This woman had taken it upon herself to better herself when she could -- learning poetry and studying psychology -- yet as a nation we now have neither the right words nor the willpower to truly help in her time of need. That is at the core of what was so dismaying about last week's presidential debate -- not that Obama was so lame, but there was nothing to believe that Obama will fight for Youk. But neither will Romney.

Maybe it's because nothing left to lose is just another word for freedom, but we're seeing more and more workers fighting back. Employees at the New York Times are battling for a fair shake right now, and they seem to be getting some positive results, not unlike the NFL refs and the Chicago teachers before them. and totally support my colleagues up at 42nd and 8th. But then, I support pretty much any worker who's making a stand these days. It takes guts.

And it's a bleak autumn. I read the piece about Youk this morning, but before there was even time to write this I saw how Philadelphia has turned a homeless facility into the place where Stephen Starr readies food for his platinum-card customers. Metaphor? But then I read that the folks who actually do the work in Philadelphia's fine eateries aren't doing much better:

Two out of three restaurant workers in Philadelphia would not be able to support a family of three on their wages, according to a study of the city's restaurant industry released today.

"Philadelphia restaurant workers are worse off than they were a decade ago," notes the report titled "Behind the Kitchen Door: The Hidden Reality of Philadelphia's Thriving Restaurant Industry."

Restaurant employees also face rampant discrimination, wage theft and unsafe working conditions, the report said.

It was one year ago that a movement sprung forth called Occupy Wall Street that vowed to fight for people like Mee Lin Youk, for the homeless, for workers falling behind like those in Philadelphia's restaurants. Now, they are gone with the nippy winds of October. Mitt Romney is standing at a podium trying to figure out how to get what's left of your pension money up his car elevator, and Barack Obama is looking down at his shoes. Sisters -- and brothers -- are going to have to do it for themselves.