Labor Day has been an institution in the United States of America since Congress first recognized it as a Federal Holiday in 1894. It represents a time for socializing at barbeques and family picnics. For many of us it marks the end of the summer and the return to our regular routines. For retailers, Labor Day weekend is one of the busiest times of the year, second only to the day after Thanksgiving.
Labor Day has changed over the last 120 years, but one thing has remained the same: it’s still a celebration of America’s working people. And we need to celebrate and honor America’s workers now more than ever, because we’re staring down some of the toughest challenges we’ve ever faced.
In some ways, things look very good. American corporations are incredibly profitable. And American workers are incredibly productive. But generations of American workers haven’t been getting their fair share of what we’ve produced: according to a 2011 Economic Policy Institute report [http://www.epi.org/publication/the_sad_but_true_story_of_wages_in_america/], between 1979 and 2009, American productivity increased by 80%, while wages went up only 10.1%.
A recent story in the Philadelphia Daily News [http://articles.philly.com/2013-08-22/news/41437651_1_labor-force-job-market-job-seekers] offered more sobering facts at a local level: along with 67,300 Philadelphians who are considered officially “unemployed”, there are another 57,700 Philadelphians who have been out of work for so long that they’ve fallen off the rolls. Add together the officially-unemployed and the long-term unemployed, and you get a figure of 125,000 Philadelphians — 19% of our potential workers being out of work.
One thing I haven’t mentioned about Labor Day – it’s traditionally the start of the political campaign season. But the failure of our political leaders is one of the reasons for the mess we’re in today. I think we need leaders who value and honor working people, every day of the year, and not just on Labor Day. And they need to honor workers not just with handshakes and soundbites, but with their effort and the policies they fight for: more investment in our schools and essential public services, expanding access to healthcare, reforming our nation’s immigration laws.
The man who was the head of the American Federation of Labor back on the first Labor Day was Samuel Gompers, a cigar-maker who’d immigrated to New York City from England when he was a boy. In 1915, he summed up labor’s goals this way:
“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”
Here in 2013, our aims are basically the same. Across the country, in fast-food restaurants and at Walmarts, workers are standing up and demanding fair treatment and a fair day’s pay for the work they do. Here in Philadelphia, teachers and students and parents have stood together, demanding investment in our schools and fair treatment for public school employees. That kind of courage is what makes progress. And it’s what gives me hope for America’s workers as we celebrate another Labor Day.