David Esrati, union organizer? Christopher Gardner?

Publicity photo of Christopher Gardner, author of “The Pursuit of Happyness”I’ve been called more than my share of names, but union organizer is a new one.

After a folksy speech, punctuated with a lot of “I know some of you out there know what I’m talking about” – I got a chance to ask Christopher Gardner a question.

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Christopher Gardner, who told his story of rising from poverty to self-made millionaire in his autobiography The Pursuit of Happyness

He said, you can always tell what part of the country in by the questions- and was I an AFL/CIO organizer. Considering my past dealings with some of the labor organizations in Dayton- I had a hard time keeping a straight face.

Christopher’s story is a modern-day fairy tale of hard work and single-minded determination. For the few Christophers out there, there are quite a few more people who worked a lifetime of hard honest work – only to see their life savings get “Enron’d” into oblivion. Considering he rose from homelessness to millions – by working as a stock broker, I had to ask: how do you feel about CEO’s making multiples of 365x their workers’ pay, and getting rewarded for cutting benefits, offshoring jobs and pillaging pension funds. His answers were that when the stockholders don’t receive value, they will step in- to which I asked a follow up; that with program trading and institutional investors moving funds according to the way the wind is blowing- how can we talk about value?

He gave the absolute right answer: “that isn’t investing”- but when pressed to what he would do about it- as people lose their homes- due to corporate largess, usurious interest rates, predatory lending- he had no answer.

People like Christopher – who have an audience on Oprah, 20/20 and access to movie moguls- have a position to remind our nation about the responsibilities that come with leadership. That not all poverty is caused by laziness, alcohol, illness- but sometimes the system will put the screws to you.

His downfall began with too many parking tickets- and continued downhill from there. If there is a modern day person more able to understand, speak and be a voice of the oppressed, I don’t think I’ve met them. However, Gardner is selling nothing more than a self-help program and rah-rah speech, instead of attacking some of the institutional forces that keep people from reaching their potential.

I found it particularly poignant that he spoke about the costs of day care as a major roadblock for rising out of homelessness- something I addressed in my 1993 campaign for Mayor- where I suggested subsidized day care as an economic development tool.

He also thanked “ladies of the evening” for doing what would now be known as “random acts of kindness” giving $5 bills to his son instead of candy- when he and his son were living in a rough section of town. He must fully understand what those women had to do to give his kid a meal when he had nothing to feed him. What is he doing to help them back, now that he can more than afford to do the same in return?

I guess, to be called a union organizer isn’t so bad, compared to what I might choose to call Christopher Gardner, if I felt it was my duty to label people.

The real question is what kind of organizer is Christopher Gardner? Does he have the guts to go back and question the hand that fed him (Wall Street) on the righteousness of the model that allows people to earn great sums, with no real risk?

I don’t think he has the answer. At least, I didn’t hear it today.

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