Labor Day! Not Just a last hurrah

By Jonathan Koepke

Well, as we all know this last Monday was Labor Day. For many of us it signified the last hurrah of summer, and a day to barbeque and spend some time with family. While everyone appreciates a day off, I think that Labor Day in particular is one that we all should take a moment and reflect on its reasons for existing.

It used to be that there was no such thing as Labor Day. At those times, people worked 12-hour-days in miserable conditions for what today would be under $1 a day. For many of them the only day off would be an occasional Sunday. In most families, as soon as the children were physically able, they went to factories or mines to work to help feed the family. This is something that would certainly not be tolerated today, but it happened in this nation less than 100 years ago.

Today we don’t have to worry about experiencing this kind of hardship in selling our labor for wages, but that certainly does not mean we should forget why we are able to. The reason is because hard working people of all races from all ethnicities and backgrounds banded together to fight for better conditions, shorter hours and higher wages. We have a Labor Day because those women and men fought for it, and it was never an easy fight. After all, the rich and powerful don’t exactly have a wonderful reputation of letting go of those things that make them rich and powerful.

In order to make the progress that we enjoy today, they had to organize and strike in order to make the most minimal progress. It has taken workers more than 150 years of fighting tooth and nail to win back, in small bits, the things that capitalism has been taking from them since its early development. Without unions and workers in and out of organizations fighting for higher wages and reasonable hours, we would not have a minimum wage or a 40-hour work week, or anything like what we have today in comparison to what people had 100 years ago.

Looking outside of this nation, there are still people all across the globe who work in conditions very similar to the ones described earlier in this column. People all across Southeast Asia work producing goods for American and European corporations for a great deal less than what would be considered tolerable in the United States. Sweatshops abound across the globe, and there are very few who take the time to consider that not only were we once in the same situation, but also that we have a moral responsibility to help those people.

While we have made significant progress for the working people in this nation, we still have a long way to go before we can “level the playing field.” Employers in this nation lag far behind in fair compensation for workers when one compares the change in U.S. productivity and actual compensation. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in the 10 years between 1989 and 1999 productivity rose over 23 percent while the average wage rose only 4 percent. That is a huge difference between the efficiency of the American workforce and how much they are being cheated out of their labor and their money.

The United States also lacks behind European nations in nearly every form of labor issue. The United States does not have a unified and strong labor party. While one does exist, it certainly does not have the power or even the acknowledgement that labor parties do in Europe and Japan. In addition, the majority of European nations have 30 or 35 hour work weeks. Additionally, they also have unified and progressive labor unions and some kind of mandated health coverage for all workers. Minimum wage in these nations also is much closer to a living wage than in the United States.

While we may have made significant progress from where we were 100 years ago, we certainly have a long way to go. People are being exploited everywhere and we cannot allow it to continue. While many may believe that the economy will fall if wages rise or that the nation will collapse into famine and anarchy if we were to all fight for just compensation, this is simply not the case.

With Labor Day past us, let us consider where we want to go in the future and how we want to function as a society. Do we want to ignore the plight of the working poor? Do we want to settle for less than fair wages? Do we want to trample on the working class, which has made this nation what it is today?

Perhaps we can see ourselves as standing at the midpoint of our journey toward a more just society. We have made progress, yet there are a lot of things to fix on the way. Perhaps fighting for a living wage could be one small step forward.