This Labor Day, Let’s Talk About Labor

Though first celebrated over 100 years ago, the September holiday known as Labor Day has evolved—some would say devolved—into a salute to the end of summer, a day marking the beginning of the school year, and sales at every store. Typical of most American holidays, but Billshark wants to use the opportunity of Labor Day 2017 to explore the current condition of American workers.

The first labor day is generally agreed to trace to a union-organized parade in 1882 in New York City to honor the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. It became an official federal holiday in 1894.

But what is the state of the American worker today? Going strictly by the numbers, pretty dismal. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), half the jobs in this country pay less than $18 an hour, with 40% paying less than $15.50. The DOL’s August report on the job market revealed that wages are up only 2.5% since this time last year.

Don’t trust the government’s figures? How about something from an independent company. A recent report by CareerBuilder, based on a survey of more than 3,400 employees in various industries, found that 78% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck, up from 75% last year; 71% of workers are in debt, up from 68% in 2016; and, 54% of minimum-wage workers say they have to work more than one job to make ends meet.

In the wake of the Great Recession, newly unemployed workers, as well as those attempting to enter the workforce, have turned to so-called gigs, or part-time jobs, to make money. (The DOL defines “part-time” as anything less than 35 hours a week.)

But what’s the reality of gig employment? A survey by San Francisco-based loan-provider Earnest, reported last month in The Washington Post, showed that 85% of gig workers make less than $500 a month. And of course, gig work provides zero benefits.

Here are some figures: Airbnb yielded a monthly median income of $440; the median Lyft driver made $210 a month while Uber drivers pulled in $155; the median income on the popular craft site Etsy was $40 a month; and, TaskRabbit workers scored $110 a month. Well, maybe they’re all just lazy.

Because that’s the come-back, isn’t it? If you’re not succeeding in this great land of ours, you’re just too lazy to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and make it, like I did, or like my father/grandfather/fill-in-another example did. This widespread belief helps people think it can’t happen to them. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately a third of all U.S. residents slipped below the poverty line at least once for two months or more during the three-year period of 2009-2011, the height of the Great Recession. It can happen to anyone.

And as an interviewee on NPR once aptly put it: “If 100 people apply for two job openings, that doesn’t make 98 of them lazy.”

So what’s changed since your immigrant grandfather grabbed his bootstraps, created his own company and made millions? Lots of things.

Outsourcing, for one, in the global economy, made possible by the Internet and such trade deals as NAFTA. The rise of robotics, with automation replacing everyone from pizza makers to cab drivers. The Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling, which allowed for unfettered campaign contributions, giving those with the most money a louder voice in government regulations than those without. The rise of mega-corporations, made possible by unfettered consolidations and lack of competition through lax enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

And finally, the decline of labor unions, those responsible for your Monday holiday. As well as the eight-hour workweek, the weekend, a ban on child labor, and employer-based health coverage, among other gains. In the 1950s, the era so many pine for, just over a third of the workforce was unionized. Today that figure is about six percent.

What can you do to help fight the decline of the American worker? Pay attention to politics. Get involved and look for organizations, policies, and politicians that support your rights. Some trends, such as globalization and robotics, can’t be reversed. But the average worker needs someone on his side to help fight the battles that can be won. This Labor Day, keep the above statistics in mind, and remember what the holiday is all about.

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