California Forum

This Labor Day, let’s remember the value of work

The earnest origins of Labor Day

In the past century, the holiday created to recognize the American worker has become a retail and travel opportunity. Over 40 percent of employers scheduled employees to work in past years to meet the demand.
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In the past century, the holiday created to recognize the American worker has become a retail and travel opportunity. Over 40 percent of employers scheduled employees to work in past years to meet the demand.

“A day of the people.”

That’s how the press described the first Labor Day celebration in New York City in 1882. The day was organized by unions to celebrate the American worker and bring to light the harsh conditions workers toiled under at the time, which included 12-hour workdays, unsafe conditions and low wages.

In the 135 years since, union members have continued to call for better wages, safer work and dignity on the job at every workplace. And while we’ve made a lot of progress through the years, the value of a hard day’s work is again under attack today.

Basic income is no substitute for the dignity of a career – and the accomplishments that go with it. And automation is a choice, not inevitability.

Many large corporations and their wealthy CEOs view workers simply as a cost. American workers, the most productive in the world, have seen their real incomes drop over the last several decades while the wealthiest take all the income gains. The average CEO-to-worker pay ratio went from 24-to-1 to 347-1.

In the never-ending pursuit of maximizing profits for executives, the value of work is now simply a number on a spreadsheet. If costs can be cut by outsourcing jobs, so be it.

Is the GOP Congress or President Donald Trump coming to the aid of workers? Not by the current scorecard. They, too, devalue work by dismantling worker safety protections, smothering wage growth and attacking health care access, all while catering to wealthy CEO donors by cutting taxes for the rich and big corporations.

Those same corporate CEOs and the politicians they bankroll have also led another assault on union workers. Forty years ago about 1 worker in 3 belonged to a union. Today it’s 1 in 10. That comes from very expensive corporate campaigns intended to stop workers from being able to negotiate for better wages, health care or pensions.

Some in the technology sector now promote the idea of a “universal basic income.” They suggest that when robots take all the jobs, everyone will get a basic income of, say, $13,000 a year. Even if you look past how to fund a program that would cost $3 trillion a year, the idea is misguided.

While the idea might help assuage the consciences of technology CEOs after they’ve automated us all out of a job, it would do little to offer families a better life. Basic income is no substitute for the dignity of a career – and the accomplishments that go with it. And automation is a choice, not inevitability.

Work itself has meaning. No matter what kind of job you have, there’s meaning in what you do. There’s value in what you provide. Working people are the backbone of the American economy.

Let’s rededicate ourselves to acknowledging the value of work. The CEO in the high rise building doesn’t make this economy hum; the workers on the floor, in the field and in office cubicles do.

We don’t need cheap talk by politicians who praise workers on Labor Day while undermining them every other day. We need policies that reward hard work by ensuring people earn a living wage, decent benefits and have the freedom to stand together in a union if they choose.

Let’s also value workers equally, which means fighting to end the gender and racial pay gaps.

The American dream is about opportunity. And opportunity is still a good job.

This Labor Day, let’s remember that we’re celebrating “a day of the people” by actually respecting the work we all do to make America the land of hope and opportunity it has always been.

Art Pulaski is executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation He can be reached at apulaski@calaborfed.org.

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