Harrington: Labor Day 2019: Deepening economic injustice

Labor Day has become so engrained in American consciousness as an end-of-summer holiday that we have forgotten its original purpose of honoring workers. Few people appreciate that Labor Day originated from bitter strife between industrial companies and their employees, who had to work long hours under inhumane conditions. The struggle gave rise to labor unions to protect employees.

Unions originated Labor Day in 1882 to pay tribute to workers, mostly immigrants, who were in the throes of organizing during America’s industrial revolution against economic and political structures that grotesquely exploited men, women, and children in factories, sweatshops, and mines and on railroads, docks, and ranches.

It is shameful that we rarely recall and pay tribute to the brave struggle of workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to better their families’ lives — and our lives. We have a collective amnesia about the nearly half century of their suffering, jailings, beatings and sometimes death that brought about better wages, increased workplace safety, curtailed child labor, and provided retirement, sick leave, and employer-backed health coverage. The labor movement gave us the 40-hour work week and 8-hour work day, and passed minimum wage and overtime pay laws.

We take these hard-won rights as a given and rarely recall the immense sacrifice that brought about these changes and improved our lives.

For all their shortcomings, unions helped raise up the nation’s middle class. During the period of greatest union strength, from the late 1940s through the 1950s, economic growth was vigorous and broadly shared. Unions benefited not only their own members but also raised wages for workers generally.

But the struggle is far from over. Millions of workers, especially in the construction, agriculture and service industries, still suffer daily exploitation and are among the lowest paid and least protected.

This year marks the longest period in history that Congress has not increased the federal minimum wage since it was established in 1938. Over the past 10 years, the minimum wage has stagnated at $7.25 an hour; and its purchasing power has declined by 17 percent. For a full-time, year-round minimum-wage worker, this represents a loss of more than $3,000 in annual earnings. The minimum wage is no longer a living wage.

On the other hand, according to the U.S. Economic Policy Institute, compensation for chief executives increased by 940% from 1978 to 2018, while an average worker’s pay rose by a miserable 12% over the same 40-year period.

The Brookings Institution reports that the top 1 percent of American households alone holds more wealth than the middle class. They own 29 percent of the wealth. This has not always been so. Before 2010, the middle class owned more wealth than the 1 percent. Since 1995, the middle class share of wealth has declined steadily, while the top 1 percent’s share has enlarged steadily.

America’s working class is in bad shape. About 46.1 million people live in poverty. This is tied partly to the demise of full-time jobs with benefits. Ever more common are lower paying part-time jobs, which require a family to hold two or three jobs to survive. And less benefits means more out-of-pocket medical costs and fewer employer-backed retirement plans.

Corporate public relations groups and political friends have relentlessly assaulted organized labor over the years, causing declining union membership. The weakening of unions as a once formidable political force has led to policies that spur unchecked corporate power, swell income inequality, subsidize the wealthy, and diminish the well-being of workers.

The weaker the nation’s unions, the more severe is economic injustice. Studies find that at least one-fifth of the rise in income inequality is attributable to the decline of labor unions.

Workers’ rights are based on the inherent dignity of a person. Workers are not simply a means of production like raw materials and capital. They are entitled to work in conditions that offer fair pay and enhance their dignity.

The lesson we learn from the labor movement is that our country survives best when we live as a community, watching out for each other, and not as pawns in the battle for corporate dollars. Solidarity with workers is the key, along with political action to reverse the current course of events. This is how we best honor those who brought us Labor Day and made our country better.

— James C. Harrington, a human rights attorney in Austin, is founder and director emeritus of the Texas Civil Rights Project. He’s an occasional contributor to the Saturday Forum.

Today's Bible verse

“He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

2 Corinthians 3:6

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