Labor Day is a Promise of Rest and a Call for Equity

Last Monday was Labor Day, a day I assumed was dedicated to men and women to rest from their honorable labors at work and home. There’s more to the story than that.

The nation’s Labor Day was approved by Grover Cleveland in August 1894 within a week of using federal troops to squash a nationwide Pullman Strike that killed 39 strikers. Cleveland believed he needed more labor support for the November election. He did need votes – he lost the election.

He received support for Labor Day from Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor who had opposed the Pullman strike. Gompers envisioned a Labor Day when workers felt the freedom to call for reforms.

“The day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed…that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it,” Gompers said.

I searched the Internet for 2013 Wenatchee Labor Day marches or events. The only event I found on one website was a Mojo Monday Happy Hour. I found 12 Wenatchee labor unions in the online Yellow Pages for Business, but none of their websites provided links to local events.

The websites discussed low wages, salaries and benefits. The United Food & Commercial Workers had informational pickets in Seattle on August 28th regarding ongoing negotiations that threaten existing health coverage. The UFCW also supports a $15 minimum wage for fast food workers.

Labor Day marchers are most likely missing because a 2012 Gallup poll estimates only ten percent of American workers belong to labor unions. Their strength was hammered in the late 1970s when Congress refused to pass labor reform while reforming bankruptcy law to make it easier to nullify labor management contracts.

Despite low membership, labor unions are approved by the majority of Americans according to a recent Gallup poll. However, support has declined from close to a two-thirds approval rating in 2001 to barely over half in 2011.

The decline in approval is ironic because most of Americans’ wages, salaries and benefits have been flat during that time despite labor unions calls for increases. Flat wages have occurred despite major improvements in productivity resulting in higher corporate profits and higher incomes in higher income households.

That conclusion comes from a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) which is dedicated to raising US living standards and labor market wages through research and publications instead of marching. It published an August 2013 report titled A Decade of Flat wages: The Key Barrier to Shared Prosperity and a Rising Middle Class written by Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz, two economists who have frequently testified before Congress and are often quoted in national media.

“According to every major data source, the vast majority of U.S. workers—including white-collar and blue-collar workers and those with and without a college degree—have endured more than a decade of wage stagnation,” they said.  ”Wage growth has significantly underperformed productivity growth regardless of occupation, gender, race/ethnicity, or education level. In other words, the vast majority of wage earners have already experienced a lost decade, one where real wages were either flat or in decline.”

My children are in that vast majority of flat-lined salaries that make it difficult to save for a better life and education. Accepting those difficulties would be easier if everybody was struggling equally. But they’re not.

The EPI recommends policy changes that could help such as public investments in infrastructure that would increase productivity, better collective bargaining power, increases in minimum wages linked to inflation and immigration reform.

Those rights would be on placards in a Labor Day parade, where working families could feel the strength and support of their neighbors as they strive for better futures in a nation where the benefits of rising productivity are available only for the few.

That’s the full story of Labor Day, a promise of rest and a call for equity.

About Russellsclearskies

Writing to poke fun at a retired klutz like me who's curiously exploring the absurdities and complexities of the good life. .
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4 Responses to Labor Day is a Promise of Rest and a Call for Equity

  1. Elaine Johnson says:

    You know, Jim, your whole career seems to have prepared you to be a brilliant columnist. Im amazed at the imagination and research that characterize all your articles, and your style is conversational and clear, not boring academic prose. Youre really good at this writing stuff.


    On 9/5/13 9:26 AM, “James S Russell’s Clear Skies” wrote:

    > Russellsclearskies posted: “Last Monday was Labor Day, a day I assumed was > dedicated to men and women to rest from their honorable labors at work and > home. Theres more to the story than that. The nations Labor Day was approved > by Grover Cleveland in August 1894 within a week of” >

  2. Deborah Moore says:

    Great information as always! Thank you.

  3. Gary says:

    Jim, in the last decades unions have themselves contributed to their decline by their unreasonable demands and tactics. It’s not a one sided story.

  4. Sheri Russell says:

    Thank you. Very informative and call to action. Enjoy reading your posts, even if I don’t always have a chance to respond. Have a great weekend, love, Sheri

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