Labor Day: a holiday designed to show respect for America's organized labor. Originally proposed by the secretary of New York's Central Labor Union, the holiday was slowly adopted, state by state, until 1894. That year, the massive Pullman car strike ended with the massacre of 30 people, $80 million in property damage, and a national labor force that was furious. In an attempt to smooth things over, Congress and President Grover Cleveland rushed through a bill that made Labor Day a federal holiday.
Labor Day 2013 finds labor and workers in general in the weakest position they have been in in decades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012, the total number of union members fell to 14.3 million, or 11.3 percent of U.S. workers -- the lowest level since 1916. It isn't hard to see why: On one side, an increasing number of states have enacted right-to-work laws and have placed restrictions on collective bargaining. At the same time, a growing number of employers across the business spectrum have actively fought union formation.
The results of weak labor are hard to deny. Inflation-adjusted ("real") household income has been flat since 1999 and even decreased recently. U.S. median household income fell from $51,144 in 2010 to $50,502 in 2011. Extreme poverty in the United States, meaning households living on less than $2 per day before government benefits, doubled from 1996 to 1.5 million households in 2011, including 2.8 million children. Meanwhile, as worker wages have fallen, corporate profits have soared.
A higher number of families than ever before are trying to live on a minimum wage income. A minimum wage earner working 40 hours a week without ever taking a vacation will make $15,080 a year. And contrary to what many think, minimum wage positions are not limited to jobs held by teenagers during the summer time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of fast-food workers is over 28; and women, who comprise two-thirds of the industry, are over 32. The median age of big-box retail workers is over 30. The average Wal-Mart employee earns $8.81 an hour. A third of Wal-Mart’s employees work fewer than 28 hours per week and don’t qualify for benefits. These workers typically bring in half their family’s earnings. While the minimum wage was not intended to to feed a family of four, 25 percent of jobs in America are now minimum or near minimum wage jobs.
And the downturn in wages is directly attributable to the weakening of labor's voice. The Economic Policy Institute notes that the decline in union membership has almost perfectly mirrored the growing income inequality gap. In other words, as union membership drops, the share of income going to the top 10 percent of households has risen in almost perfect lockstep.
Meanwhile the corporate-controlled media and "pro-business" propaganda machine has done an excellent job convincing workers that any raise to the minimum wage or any form of union membership or concerted activity is somehow against their own interests and even perhaps "unAmerican." So the gulf between the rich and the rest of us continues to widen and the propaganda machine tells us we should be ashamed if we think this is a problem.
Ben Field states it well:
Every working family has an interest in maintaining a healthy labor movement. Why? Because the labor movement is the only national organization that can advance the interests of working families. Labor's opponents have falsely labeled the movement as a special interest group, but labor is no more a special interest group than the desire for decent wages and basic benefits is a special interest.
American workers need to stop buying into the nonsense being spouted by the corporate-owned media and start standing up for themselves and their families. If America is to return to greatness again it will do so because we all are striving together. American workers need to demand a fair minimum wage because it sets the floor on which higher wages for all workers are built. American workers need to demand the right to address working conditions and pay issues as a group because their voices are heard only when spoken in unison. American workers need to demand and vote for legislators who fight for them rather than those who seek to funnel even more wealth to corporate and insurance interests.
America can be great again if its workers will stand up and start fighting for what is right.