Labor Day comes upon us as the end of our summer vacation and the beginning of the school season. There is very little in the celebration of Labor Day that tells the story of the history of the struggles that working people have gone through or the ones they are still battling. Everywhere else in the world the struggles of working people are celebrated on May 1st..
May 1st actually began in the United States with the fight for the eight-hour day in Chicago and the Haymarket affair of 1886. Already in the making was corporate power in alliance with the press and civic authorities, which sidetracked and suppressed the issues of the workers represented by the Haymarket event. Labor Day in the United States, instead of memorializing the continuing struggles of working people, has come to represent the end of summer and the beginning of the school year.
As we approach Labor Day in 2014, it doesn’t take much common sense to recognize the gross inequities in the U.S. economic system. The Occupy movement came into being as a 21st century witness to the loss of the economic equalization process that happened in the post-Reagan era. The voices of the 99% were pointing to the tremendous imbalance in the sharing of the rewards of the productivity of the U.S. work force. In the 1947 through 1979 period the family income of the lower 80% of the economy grew by 108% and the family income of the top 1% grew by 63%. In the period of 1979 through 2007 the family income of the lower 80% of the economy grew by 16% while the family income of those in the 1% grew by 224%. This great imbalance can be attributed, in part, to the loss of the bargaining power of the labor union movement. It was the ability of organized labor during the mid-century period to increase middle-class incomes.
As we approach the 2014 mid-term elections, the power of the oligarchy in the United States to shape Congressional elections and legislation favoring their interests is unparalleled. The celebration of Labor Day becomes a farce in speaking for working people’s justice in our economy. This is especially true as we recognize the loss of the voices of the marginalized in our society. Conservative forces continue to eviscerate social programs related to the well-being of low income and middle income families, i.e., children’s education and health, child care programs for working mothers, affordable medical programs for low income people, and preserving the hard earned social security benefits for retirees.
In the political arena, legislative actions are already underway in some states to target vulnerable people’s right to cast their vote. In other states and regions, the program and policies of the Tea Party and similar conservative groups are ardent in turning back the social justice gains of the last century. The very people who are part of these conservative movements have gained their own status by the sweat and the perseverance of their own forbearers, who fought the very entrenched economic interests to win their fair and just rights from them. Thomas Frank illuminated this story in his 2004 book “What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.”
In the 1930s, the farmers and the workers of Kansas faced the depressed economy and fought those forces that would keep them in poverty. This was the story for many Kansas families. Jump ahead a half century: the offspring of these folk having forgotten their family’s struggles are now listening to voices that direct them to the moral issues of the times, i.e., abortion and gay marriage. Lost to their attention are the new economic power players who would keep them from seeing the real social and economic issues of the day. Working people are often blindsided by those voices calling for so-called moral values and vote against their own best interests.
New attention must be paid to Labor Day as it tells the story of the inequities which still exist within the U.S. scene, and it calls for a new reckoning with these inequities through the political process. Let us get the meaning of Labor Day straight in 2014.