Labor Day – What Does It Mean?

In 1887 the first Monday in September was designated a “Labor Day”, federal holiday. The day was intended to celebrate the labor movement’s successes.  It has grown in more recent times to be more a signal of summer’s end. What happened to Labor in Labor Day?

Most of us know nothing, other than what we read in history books, of sweat shops, 80 hour work weeks, or the slave like grip “Capital” exercised over labor. Celebrating “Labor Day” is today more about hamburgers and hot dogs or hot new car sales than about the abuses of “Capital”. Times do change.

Organized labor has lost much of its shine. Through the years, organized labor won many concessions and delivered high productivity with more than enough “free time” for workers. But in the end, organized labor has been conflicted on whether it was a business or political organization and lost its role as a champion for labor. Those who attained top “union” leadership positions earned more money and had access to more collateral benefits.

Keeping the top union positions required the use of both the carrot and stick.  Workers must pay dues in order to hold their jobs.

Work rules became the bedrock upon which organized labor circled its wagons. Maintaining the status quo could keep the union leaders in power while telling workers they were being well served.

Consider

  • the wide spread use of seniority as the standard of work force reduction
  • the requirements for union membership which tend to exclude certain groups
  • the call for union workers only on large construction jobs
  • the strenuous objection to “right to work” laws the narrow definition of duties anyone worker can perform

Most of us came bring to mind ridiculous situations where one or more of these characteristics have been manifest. How could sane leaders insisted upon such requirements?

Once more history can be your friend. Capital sees all labor as just another tool and lives fervently by the desire to maximize profits through full control of labor and its cost. In other words, Capital given a chance will fire workers without cause, remunerate at the lowest level possible, and export jobs or import cheaper labor in order to increase profits. Hmmm.

The “profit incentive” seems still the best method for creating economic growth and general well being for both labor and capital. The growing inequality of income distribution, however, is raising red flags. In the last 30 years, US productivity has increased dramatically while the average worker’s wage as remained (inflation adjusted) flat. Hmmm.

There will be plenty of hamburgers and hot dogs available for American families this Labor Day. Yet all is not good.

Signs abound warning that the cost of living is rising faster than wages. What is more disconcerting is the language Capital and Labor are using.

It seems that neither force recognizes that each’s well being is inseparably tied to the other. “Labor” is both a means of production and a means of consumption.

So, this Labor Day, union leaders, captains of industry, owners of capital, and both political and public service workers need to reflect upon how more productivity can be achieved at higher wages thereby putting the brakes on the increasing income distribution inequality.

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