Labor Day is the last, long weekend of summer and a signal that it’s time to get back to work….that is if one has work, which takes us to the real meaning of Labor Day. Labor Day began unofficially in 1882 and was formally recognized as a federal holiday in 1894. It was a conciliatory outreach to organized labor after the lethal Pullman Strike in which federal marshals killed more than a dozen workers.
We have little overt labor violence today , but labor’s once strong role in capitalism is now diminished. Official unemployment stands at 9%. Actual unemployment is almost double that according to the Washington Post. Other sources put the number broadly at one in five unemployed.
There are both short-term and endemic reasons for labor’s decline. Short term factors include employer malaise about the economy, pensions becoming self-directed retirement plans, employee loss of healthcare benefits, and emasculated unions.
Longer term factors include the proliferation of robotic labor, the importation of workers willing to work for less than a living wage, and the export of high-paying jobs to low-wage countries. More broadly, the combined impact of technological evolution, deregulation, and globalization have all combined to steeply undermine the negotiating stance of the American worker even though their productivity is and has been for decades among the highest in the world.
This has broad implications for a democratic society. After World War II, America gave birth to one the fastest growing and most productive middle classes in history. Six decades later, the polarization of American wealth is as it was in 1920. Many in the middle class are slipping into poverty. Very few achieve the promised land of halcyon wealth. The link between worker’s rising productivity and commensurate compensation is broken. From 1980 to 2004 US gross domestic product per person rose by more than 60%, while wages, adjusted for inflation, actually fell. And in 2010, the richest 10% of Americans control 2/3 of the country’s net worth.
A nation’s strength is measured in great part by how wealth is distributed, as well as by how it nourishes and educates its children, and cares for its poor, sick and elderly. By all measurements we are trending badly.
I am continually amazed by the ability of the very rich and influential to seduce and convert their struggling countrymen to their own cause. Their ability to nourish fear and confusion in those trying to make a go of it and showcase the illusory promise of their own great wealth defies logic. Perhaps we lack a leadership voice articulating the human benefits of moderation that community values impose. Perhaps the distrust that many conservatives have of science, education, intellect, and community is having the desired impact.
Born of violent conflict, Labor Day was supposed to celebrate the American worker, their productivity and their contribution to a thriving economy. Perhaps we should just call it the end of summer.