Last night, I watched the holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The movie spins the yarn of George Bailey, a man overwhelmed by family obligations but with a deep sense of responsibility toward his community. George feels tied down to a company he never had an interest in working for, and a life he never wanted to live. George’s nemesis, the Ebenezer Scrooge of Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter, is a rich miser who delights in taking from everybody without caring how he affects them. The modest building and loan company, founded by George’s generous father, is the only thing that stands between Potter and his taking over the entire town and further oppressing the townspeople. In the end, good, of course, triumphs over evil.
As I watched, I realized this story is more than a holiday gem dusted off each December. It is a story that is quite relevant today. George Bailey represents those of us who are working our way through life, and simultaneously fighting for fairness in our communities while fighting against greed – like the ‘Potters’ that control most of the country’s power and wealth today.
Through his selfishness and quest for ultimate control, Mr. Potter can be likened to today’s Koch brothers and Walmart’s Walton family. He seeks to control everything, like today’s power brokers create log jams in Congress, outsource or destroy good jobs, and create state laws to increase their power while decreasing ours.
Potter uses several ethnic slurs when speaking of the people who are helped by the building and loan. The movie took place in the 1920’s through 1940’s – a time of increased immigration that resulted in our country becoming the “great American melting pot,” which led to innovation, vast production and the realization of the “American dream” for many. Today, the Potters of the country are working to stifle immigration; belittle and ridicule attempts at health reform; do away with safety net programs that help the most vulnerable among us get by; and take all they can from working middle class families, however and whenever they can.
In the film, when faced with a financial crisis, George Bailey became discouraged. He believed his family would be better off without him; and he contemplated suicide. His guardian angel, Clarence, showed him what life would have been like if George had never been born. Soon, George realizes his impact in the world thanks to the rest of the people in his life.
It’s a Wonderful Life may be an old tale – as old as time it seems. Greed, and its ability to assume power and drive others into oppression, has long been a story played out in countries and cultures since societies began forming. It is difficult to not be discouraged with what is going on in our nation today. But there is a bright spot – many in fact.
There is a recognizable cycle to greed and oppression. If we realize the powerful role and responsibilities we all have in righting our world, we can redirect our future rather than succumb to it. That’s what the people in George’s community did when they organized the fight to beat back Potter’s power play. They knew that George represented an institution critical to all of their futures – one guided by shared investment and commitment.
The movie provides a glimpse into what life would be like without people like George and institutions that champion working people. It’s a world that we are beginning to see right now in NH and in the USA. But like George and his townspeople, it is a world that I reject. That is why the SEA Board of Directors, SEA staff, SEIU leaders and staff, allies in the community and around the country, and I are taking seriously our roles and responsibilities for helping to right our world.
We are all grateful for those of you who have joined this work as member activists. For each one of you that do, the future gets brighter for all of us. If you haven’t yet joined this work though, if you aren’t a member either, I invite you to imagine our world without people like George Bailey and institutions like that old Building and Loan. Imagine our world without those townpeople coming together to redirect their future out of Potter’s hands.
Take some time to watch the film, if you can. Celebrate the remaining holidays. Be safe and healthy as you do. Just know that we need you and that people need us collectively. Together, the future really is brighter.
I wish all of you and yours a safe, healthy and happy holiday season and an even better new year!
President SEA, SEIU Local 1984