Schubart: Labor Day 2011

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As the nights have begun to grow
cooler – and the days shorter – commentator Bill Schubart has been
thinking about the meaning of Labor Day.

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 begun 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.

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.


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