It is Labor Day once again, the day chosen to honor American labor. Most American workers have an extra day off. Locally and nationally we hold celebrations where politicians address the people to thank American labor for the prosperity of our country.
This is pretty much the story told by the official historian of the US Department of Labor. In 1882 when labor unions were first being organized, some labor activists held the first Labor Day celebration in New York City. Twelve years later, Pres. Grover Cleveland signed a law that the first Monday of September should be a national holiday to celebrate American labor.
But this story is incomplete. It overlooks the fact that the organization of unions has always been controversial. It has always been faced with the bitter opposition of employers and employer groups. The owners of the factories and businesses where workers worked have been unqualifiedly hostile to labor organizations and to labor. In 1894 President Cleveland turned Labor Day into a national holiday after National Guard troops and private security guards had fired on workers in the Pullman strike.
This hostility continues unabated to this day. The national celebration of Labor Day is one more public relations exercise to pretend that we are all in the same corner, that we are unified. Look at the facts and you see that that is mere pretense.
America used to acknowledge that it had a sizable working class. But today we are ashamed of calling ourselves workers or working-class. The rhetoric of politicians from the president on down constantly speaks of the “middle class.”
Workers have not had a significant raise in close to 50 years. Since the early 1970s wages in the US have been stagnant. While large companies and their stockholders, as well as their management, have gotten rich, the men and women who produced all this wealth received pretty much the same wages and, taking inflation into account, actually earn less than they did 50 years ago. Workers are being exploited.
Recent newspaper stories document this shabby treatment of workers. The young men and women who graduated high school and went on to work in factories in the late 1970s were confidently looking forward to a solid and dependable work life and a decent income, decent health care and decent retirement. Now at the end of their work life their situation has changed dramatically. Many of their jobs have been exported to Asia or Latin America. Their financial situation is precarious. Their savings disappeared in the 2008 crash and they cannot afford to stop working. Disappointed and enraged some of these workers are now supporting Donald Trump.
For people still working the landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. Where their parents would work for the same company for many years and receive the benefits of labor legislation: compulsory overtime, government control of workplace safety, paid sick time and parenting leave, and other benefits, a larger and larger portion of the workforce have changed from being employees to being "independent contractors."
The hourly pay of independent contractors seems quite generous. Über drivers make $17 an hour and more in some localities. But unlike the employee who works in factories or offices provided by the employer, the independent contractor, for instance a driver, provides his own machinery. The Über driver provides his own car and must pay for gas and maintenance. Once that has all been paid for the hourly wage is considerably more modest. Independent contractors have no job security. They pay for their own health care and if they think about their retirement years they have to save for that also. They are not owed overtime pay. They are not entitled to paid parenting leave. They don't get paid sick days.
Transforming an employee into an independent contractor is clearly a bonanza for the employer. It aggravates the employee’s exploitation.
Once we look beyond the Labor Day speeches of grand unity between employers and employees, the stark reality is very different. Employers are continuing to squeeze employees, to reduce their income, to make them work hard for a smaller and smaller return.
The low esteem in which employers and, more generally, the leading strata of the society hold working people is exemplified most starkly in the experience of people who have stopped working. After many years of producing America's wealth, their bodies worn out, former workers who retire find themselves in serious straits. They are facing a serious reduction in their standard of living. In 2010 75% of the population ready to retire had $30,000 in savings to supplement what Social Security would provide for them. They could expect about $2000 a month from Social Security; the figure is lower for women. With $30,000 in savings they would very soon be living off Social Security and not much more. They would be living close to the poverty line. Retirees who had an unusual work history may expect even less from the government pension plan. Government health insurance – Medicare – is not adequate without supplementary insurance policies to pay for medical care and medications. Retirees living on Social Security will be hard put to pay for such additional medical insurance in the years when their healthcare costs are bound to go up.
The workers whom the speechifiers on Labor Day thank for their contributions face near poverty or actual poverty for the rest of the year. The gratitude expressed on Labor Day does not amount to much.
Once retired, the American workers can no longer be exploited, except for the many retirees who have a part-time job which, of course, has no benefits,no security, no overtime or sick leave. They earn very little, they produce little. That reduces their value to the society significantly. It reduces the society’s interest in assuring them a decent old age which they have so richly deserved.
These are the sad facts. They are not in any way mitigated by the public relations talk on Labor Day.