This Labor Day, Let’s Make the Case for Laborers

labor day stamp_editorial use onlyBy Elaine Mejia, Senior Program Associate

Time Magazine for Kids has this to say about our upcoming national holiday: “More than a century ago, workers were forced to deal with harsh conditions. They were paid very little, and they often worked 10- to 12-hour days. Men, women and even small children were forced to work even when they were sick.” There is no doubt that working conditions today are better than they were a century ago. Yet, in many ways, today’s headlines about workers and their struggles illustrate how far we still have to go and how much ground we have lost in the past few decades.

Recent protests by workers in the fast food industry have drawn attention to the anemic value of today’s minimum wage and the high costs of health care. The NY Times recently called attention to the fact that the public sector is now a low-wage leader rather than a model for fair wages as it was in times past. The numbers of people facing long-term unemployment or working multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet remain stubbornly near historical highs. And many laborers are still, for all practical purposes, forced to work when they are sick because they lack any paid sick days.

It’s not as if Americans don’t care about the labor market. Gallup’s polling results tell us that Americans consistently cite the Economy Overall and Jobs/Employment as their top two concerns, together garnering 44% of top votes in the most recent poll. These two concerns dwarf the third-place contender, Dissatisfaction with Government, which in the most recent poll was the top concern for 17% of Americans.

Working conditions are declining at the same time the economy and jobs are the nation’s top priorities. And yet there has been virtually no progress made on a significant pro-jobs (much less a pro-quality-jobs) agenda. It’s not as there is no money to invest in job creation and improve working conditions. Wages and income as a share of GDP are way down, while the inverse is true of corporate profits.

What gives? How can Americans be so concerned about the economy and employment and yet seem so unwilling to do anything about it? Part of the answer lies in how Americans think about the economy and, in particular, about government’s role in creating an economy in which quality jobs proliferate. Just ask President Obama, who has been trying for nearly five years to make the case for a national investment in infrastructure that would add thousands of jobs.

So this Labor Day, let’s start a conversation about how we can work together to create a good economy. Here’s a snapshot of what Public Works recommends, based on our research work done in conjunction with TOPOS and our extensive field experience in partnership with organizations on the ground.

First, we have to recognize and respond to the fact that Americans worry about the economy and jobs the way they worry about the weather – they are concerned but believe there isn’t anything they can do except work harder or hunker down. To overcome this it’s important to assert that the economy is intentional. In other words, the economy is not something that happens to us, not something to which we merely respond. It is something that we shape, mold and proactively determine.

Next, we must foster a sense of interconnectedness in order to build a case for government’s role in the economy. Our individual success is dependent upon the world around us…the schools we were able to attend, our access to a decent transportation system to distribute what we produce, etc. Public investments shape our shared economic fates.

Finally, we must effectively articulate government’s role in enabling and supporting private economic activity. This offers a counter-story to the dominant narrative that government and the private sector are at odds. A strong way to start this conversation is to remind people that the rise of the American middle class was the result of policy choices in the past – supports for low-wage workers, increased access to higher education, and publicly funded infrastructure projects. People agree that the overall economy is improved when we make choices that strengthen and grow the middle class, and we need to help them recognize that such policy options are available to us today. President Obama has been trying out a version of this narrative in recent months with his explanations of the benefits of creating a “Middle-Out Economy” – the idea that economic prosperity starts with the middle class and grows out, rather than trickling down from the top.

After a number of proposals by labor organizations in the 1880’s cities and states across the country began to formally recognize an annual “labor” day and in 1894 Congress finally made Labor Day a national holiday to recognize workers. Today, it’s enshrined as the last official blast of summer vacation and backyard barbecues. But at the time, laborers and their allies hoped Americans would use the day for a bigger purpose. In 1898, Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, called Labor Day “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.”

So, this Labor Day let’s put our shoulders together and use our long holiday weekend to have a new conversation with our friends and neighbors about the kind of economy we can and should create.

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