Writing in Huffington Post, Bill Quigley, a law professor, lists several sad facts facing American workers on this picnic day that is supposed to honor labor. I urge to you take a minute, review this list, and ponder its meaning. The one point I would like to underscore is this: While productivity increased 21% between 2000 and 2014, wages only increased 2%. To quote the Talking Heads, “Who took the money away?”
I admire former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’ ability to take complex ideas and present them in language that should be accessible to most working people. Citing the coming of Labor Day, Reich reflects on the “shared” or “on call” work models that are becoming more and more popular as ways to staff and manage employees. He cites studies that say 40% of Americans can be working under such conditions over the next five years.
From the employer’s standpoint, this model makes sense. Why pay people to work when they are not needed? The problem with this business model, as Reich points out, is that it gives the loyal no security. They don’t know when or how they will earn their next dollar. The worst part of such a work schedule is that it leaves works panicked about their future. We need to respect labor and have laws that limit employers’ ability to offer “uncertain” work.
Laura Clawson of Daily Kos helps us plan our holiday cook outs by presenting food that is produced by union labor. Her shopping list includes many large brand names, which should be easy to find. I would add to this list that we should try to shop at stores that have union employees - not an easy task.
Common Dreams features John Nichols of the Nation who links labor rights to human rights. What is he talking about? Primarily that workers should be allowed the protection common in any democracy: freedom of speech and association. Representative Keith Ellison and John Lewis are sponsoring the Employee Empowerment Act to help workers organize without retaliation. The problem in our current political culture is that this bill has no immediate chance of being debated much less passed into law.
Non-union workers at Market Basket won a battle when their strikes led to the reinstatement of a CEO they respect. However, this victory does not lead to any secure future for the workers. If the CEO they fought for decides to turn on them, they have no recourse in the form of a contract or collective rights. As Kate Aronoff notes, it is a victory, especially in demonstrating the power of any group of workers when they can join together to demand better working conditions.
Finally, Al Jazeera America’s Gregg Levine considers the holiday in light of the Pullman Strike and the recent Market Basket labor victory. He reminds us the President Grover Cleveland first declared Labor Day a holiday during the Pullman Strike. As he concludes, politicians once feared the American working class. Maybe the time is coming when labor will again have that power.
Have a happy Labor Day. Take a minute to think about what we have as working people, what we have lost, and – most importantly – what we should fight for in the future.
Clients will sometimes ask if there is a good time to look for work or a bad time to be conducting a job search. My answer is that someone who is unemployed or wants a better job should never stop looking. That said, there are hiring cycles when jobs are more available.
Generally speaking, hiring rises in mid-January through early summer tails off a little until Labor Day picks up strong through Thanksgiving and slows down a lot through the New Year. That’s a general model of hiring. What does it mean for the individual job seeker? It means you should work hard on your job search between now and Thanksgiving, but you should not stop looking on Black Friday. I’ve had clients hired to new jobs on the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s Day.
A good job search never ends until the job seeker gets an offer. Understand the hiring cycle and expect to see fewer ads posted during slow periods. Still, some company will always be hiring because an employee moves, retires, gets sick, or dies. Companies expand and need new workers now – whenever now is.
Be realistic in your job search, but you also need to be equally persistent and resilient. Stopping your search for any reason kills momentum, and then it is very hard to get started again. Keep looking even when the market dips around the holidays. Look hard now. This is the time to be really busy.
I just spent a couple of days in Springfield, Illinois, visiting many sites that honor one of America’s greatest heroes, Abraham Lincoln. People think of Lincoln as the President who fought the Civil War and ended slavery. We also marvel at his wisdom and morality. What we often forget that Lincoln was a worker who believed in the dignity of labor. As a young boy and man, he was a farm worker, rail splitter, boat worker, and surveyor – all before he was 30. After moving to Illinois, Lincoln became a lawyer and politician. He often argued that freedom depended on the ability to earn a fair living, and he compared kings to those who “live off the toil of others.”
After Lincoln’s death, American workers joined in labor unions that brought improved wages and working conditions. Labor Day was made a holiday not long after the Pullman Strike in the late 19th century. Many workers were jailed and died in the strikes and protests that brought change, including the ability to join unions. The influence of unions pushed politicians to build a social safety net with its base as Social Security and Medicare. Over the last 30 years, too many Americans took these advances for granted. They accepted anti-worker and anti-labor propaganda while more and more of wealth and income was transferred from working people to – in Lincoln’s words – “those who live off the toil of others,” wealthy investors and their bankers.
This Labor Day we might be seeing a change coming. Last year, the Chicago Teachers Union defied a Democratic mayor who hates labor almost as much as the most conservative Republican – and they beat him (at least until the school closings and budget cuts). Low wage workers in the retail and fast food sectors are starting to fight as miners and rail workers did more than 100 years ago. Like their great grandparents, they are engaging in direct action, risking arrest just to have the right to ask for a raise and join a union. Elsewhere in Chicago, I see signs in the windows of many homes and signs on the lawn: Proud Union Home. Working people are beginning to make their voices heard. Lincoln would approve.
Labor Day Extras
Senator Elizabeth Warren discusses the importance of unions and respecting labor.
President Obama praises labor and organizing without mentioning unions.
Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times reflects on the day.
Amy Dean looks at the new face of labor – alt-labor – and the tactics it uses.
In many countries in the world, this is the day on which workers express solidarity and call for better conditions. The U.S. has a Labor Day holiday that represents the end of summer and a time to picnic. Maybe we need to be more worker focused on this day.
What is the state of working people in the U.S. on this May Day? Unemployment is still too high. Despite recent reports, wages have been flat or falling. Most of the jobs being created are lower wage. For example, the website 24/7 Wallstreet recently reported that the Dollar Store is planning to hire 10,000 employees in May. The article notes that these will not be good jobs, but it will be “10,000 more hires for payrolls to count.” Such jobs just lead to more people who have to shop at Dollar Stores. For working people and the middle class, the American economy is headed in one direction: down.
As long as executives and their crafty consultants look for new ways to increase productivity and cut wages, the problem will grow worse. But it’s not enough to blame the people at the top. As they have in past generations, workers have to unite and speak with one voice. They need to demand that politicians act in their interests.
May Day is not only a holiday. It is also an international signal that a ship or airplane is in crisis. The ship of the American workforce is about to crash: mayday, mayday!
Today is Labor Day in Australia, where it is also known as 8 Hour Day. How many Americans think of Labor Day as anything other than a day off (if they even have the day off). Australia’s version underscores what was gained in limiting the number of hours worked in a day. Sadly, for many Americans the 8 hour day has become a memory of their parents’ world. We need to take a lesson from the good people of Australia. Let’s celebrate and fight for the 8 hour day.
[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that looks at work through a wider lens.
Due to computer issues during a vacation, I’m posting this entry on 9-10-11]
Labor Day, 2011
To play on a famous line from Dickens, this year has been the best of times for organized labor. It has also been the worst. Union members in Wisconsin and Ohio have risen up to protect their right to bargain collectively. At the same time, they have had to do this because governors in those states and many others have enacted laws that restrict workers’ rights. Too many working people still think the rich are the “job creators” and union wages/benefits hurt job growth.
Over the last two and a half years, my clients have told me stories about their lives, stories that illustrate how workers are treated by the “job creators.” Salaries have been cut. Benefits reduced again and again. Hours and responsibilities increased. In many ways, this period has just been an intensification of what has been happening in America for 30 years.
It’s too easy to blame one group (the Republicans) for this problem. While I’m no fan of the GOP, especially in its current form, Democrats have done little or nothing to help working people and organized labor. Yes, protections like the minimum wage and unemployment insurance are important. But so many factories have closed in the last 10 years. So many public employees have lost their jobs in the last two years. This disease cannot be cured with band aids.
Beyond politics, I think America suffers from two bigger problems: greed and resentment. We live in a culture where we want what our neighbor has – if not something bigger. When we fail to achieve that noble goal, we’re bitter. Public workers are victims of this cultural derangement. Workers in the private sector have been under siege for 30 years. They have lost pensions, sick days, fully paid health care. Now they look at public sector workers and resent the benefits negotiated in contracts over several years. Rather than join together to get more, many private sector employees want to take away from teachers, fire fighters, and police officers. Meanwhile, those who profit most from this worker-on-worker battle smile and cash their checks.
The workers’ rights movement of the 1930s really started by economic downturns in the 1890s. Only when the system collapsed in the Great Depression did workers join together in a way that brought real change. I hope we don’t have to face another crisis like that to change the current attitudes toward unions and labor. This problem will not be solved by politics and programs. This country needs to change its outlook. It needs to value the people who do the work, not those who profit from the labor of others.
In a very interesting post, Seth ties his “linchpin” ideal to a definition of labor. Rather than having a workplace where the boss tells drone-like employees what to do, Godin imagines a society where “people want to do work that really matters.”
I agree with this position, but most employers and company owners do not. Most people are driven by what Seth and Steven Pressfield call the lizard brain, irrational fear. This emotion drives bosses to want control, and it coerces employees to work in a place where the boss tells them what to do.
Seth thinks the best workers look to solve problems. Too often, both bosses and workers simply want to avoid problems or let someone else solve them. Hopefully, Seth’s dream will find a way to replace our current culture of control.
[“Sabbath” is Career Calling’s examination of work and life beyond jobs and career.]
A Day for Labor
Labor Day has become just another day off. A time for picnics, shopping for back to school clothes, and a last blast of summer. We’ve forgotten the origin of the day. Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894 when President Grover Cleveland wanted peace with labor after the Pullman Strike in Chicago. Unions celebrated the day with festivals and speeches.
The labor movement brought working people security and prosperity. Generations expected the 40 hour week. If asked to work beyond that time, employees were paid overtime. They paid into pensions along with employers. That benefit has been replaced by fickle investment gimmicks like IRAs in which employees make the greatest contributions. 83% of employees still receive health care as part of their pay, but they are paying a greater share of that cost. The benefits unions fought for and won are disappearing.
Somehow, despite this history, many working Americans see unions as part of the problem. They believe unions drive up the cost of labor, which leads to unemployment. What this perspective ignores is the responsibility of employers and government in sending jobs to countries where labor is cheap and there are few regulations to protect workers or the environment.
In a blog the AFL CIO outlines the problems facing working people today. There are 15 million unemployed Americans, a daunting number. Even worse, a study is cited that says “the median income for an average working household fell between 2000 and 2007 by more than $2,000.” Based on these findings, Labor Day 2010 is not a day many Americans should celebrate.
Working people need to look beyond the petty terms of politics and focus on what we share in common. Most Americans work for a living. Many are now working two or more jobs just to get by. Others are living in fear that they will be laid off or that their salary will be cut. These issues aren’t Democratic or Republican. All of us have bills to pay. We all want to have some extra money to spend or save. That’s hard when there is so much uncertainty.
Maybe this Labor Day would be a good time to take a few minutes and reflect on working in America, how it was in our parents’ and grandparents’ time, how it is now, and how it can be in the future. Working Americans are more productive than ever before, and their pay is falling. They have no job security. They are paying more and more of their health care.
Once upon a time, work was respected and rewarded in this country. Now it seems like those who work are a burden on the employer and investor class. The drive for profit outweighs the needs of people. Working people need to stand together. We need to stand up.
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