Top 5 Reasons “Labor Day” isn’t for Laborers Anymore

By Juan Cole

Calling the bottom of a river a “bed” is a metaphor. Imagine the river restlessly sleeping on its muddy mattress. But when we’ve so internalized a metaphor that we forget it is a figure of speech, as with the phrase “river bed,” it is called a “dead metaphor.”

Labor Day is, alas, akin to a dead metaphor in contemporary America. There was a time when, as in 1936, the unionized auto workers could make effective demands from their employers, for higher wages and better working conditions. Workers no longer get better off in today’s USA. They are often summarily dismissed if they try to unionize. They are badly paid. Good jobs have been switched out for bad jobs. Tax policy has been manipulated by the wealthy and corporations, who have bought Congress and state legislatures, so as to ensure that the rich get richer, and richer and richer.

The US has one of the worst records on wealth and income inequality in the advanced industrialized world. This situation is bad for everyone. Rich people still only need one or two refrigerators. Many poor people can’t afford any. Having a small number of super-rich and a large number of poor means that refrigerator manufacturers can’t sell as many refrigerators as they could in a more equal society, which means that they can’t hire many workers, which reduces the number of jobs in the manufacturing sector.

So as we burn dead meat and play frisbee in a warming climate, we could stop to consider the lives of the laborers we are theoretically honoring:

1. There has been a decade of stubborn wage stagnation. The Economic Policy Institute notes:

“According to every major data source, the vast majority of U.S. workers—including white-collar and blue-collar workers and those with and without a college degree—have endured more than a decade of wage stagnation. Wage growth has significantly underperformed productivity growth regardless of occupation, gender, race/ethnicity, or education level. ”

In contrast, the wealthy have been getting a larger share of any income growth: “The top 20 percent of the highest income households in the U.S. experienced 60.6 percent of total wage gains between 2005 and 2012…” The top 5% alone took home over a quarter of all the wage gains in those years.

2. EPI observes that the lost decade comes on top of previous decades of wage stagnation, going back to about 1970, which reversed the era of wage growth after World War II:

“This lost decade for wages comes on the heels of decades of inadequate wage growth. For virtually the entire period since 1979 (with the one exception being the strong wage growth of the late 1990s), wage growth for most workers has been weak. The median worker saw an increase of just 5.0 percent between 1979 and 2012, despite productivity growth of 74.5 percent—while the 20th percentile worker saw wage erosion of 0.4 percent and the 80th percentile worker saw wage growth of just 17.5 percent.”

3. Only 11.3% of wage and salary workers belong to unions in 2014. This is down from about 35% at the peak of the movement in 1954, and down from 20% in 1983. This vast decline in unionization is not because workers don’t want the protections of union organization. It is because state legislatures have deliberately passed laws aimed at weakening unionization rights and because large corporations have systematically fired workers who tried to unionize, despite this practice being supposedly illegal.

4. Income inequality is greater than at any time since 1928. Workers are taking home a smaller slice of the overall pie, while the wealthy and superwealthy are walking away with the lion’s share. It is not in fact clear that most financiers are more important to you than your plumber, but the former make hundreds of times what the latter does. Pew Research Center remarks,

“U.S. income inequality is the highest it’s been since 1928. In 1982, the highest-earning 1% of families received 10.8% of all pretax income, while the bottom 90% received 64.7%, according to research by UC-Berkeley professor Emmanuel Saez. Three decades later, according to Saez’ preliminary estimates for 2012, the top 1% received 22.5% of pretax income, while the bottom 90%’s share had fallen to 49.6%.”

Wealth ownership inequality is even greater than income inequality: “the highest-earning fifth of U.S. families earned 59.1% of all income, the richest fifth held 88.9% of all wealth…”

5. Although there are signs of a halting recovery from the massive job losses that began in 2008 as a result of Wall Street corruption and reckless business practices, the new jobs added pay substantially less than the ones that were lost. USA Today observes,drawing from a report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and IHS Global Insight,

“The jobs regained since the recession have, as a whole, been lower paying than the ones lost. According to the IHS report, the average annual income of jobs lost between 2008 and 2009 was $61,637, while the average for those gained through the second quarter of 2014 was $47,171. This amounts to a wage gap of 23 percent and $93 billion in lower wage income . . . Jobs in low-income fields such as hospitality, which pay around $21,000 a year, replaced jobs lost in high-paid sectors such as manufacturing, which pay $63,000, the report found. ”

And, you guessed it, the top 5 percent in contrast have made out like bandits in the same period.


Related video:

ABC News: “Made in America Investigation: American Workers Fighting Back”

8 Responses

  1. Combine this with the increasing number of jobs where workers can be replaced with computers, and you get the future: the ultra-rich and their immediate staff live in fortified mansions, drones kill anyone intruding on their estates, and the rest of us starve and die in the wastelands

  2. It doesn’t help when some union leaders are in bed with politicians who are more interested in taking care of corporations that donate to their political campaigns than the people who vote for them. For decades the AFL-CIO has been donating to a Democratic (sic) Party that has repeatedly stiffed labor.

  3. “..the richest fifth held 88.9% of all wealth…” Where is this wealth held? Mostly in banks which use it to generate more money (just numbers!) and in property, the value of which is again rigged and over valued.

    So, practically wealth beyond a certain point serves no purpose and makes no sense.

  4. A couple of (hidden) prevailing mantras:
    Labor is a commodity, don’t humanize it.
    We need a “buyer beware” constitutional amendment to defang the nanny state and its lawyers..

    • Nothing hidden about it. Just check the advice from all the columnists and on-liners that tell the shlubs being born into the Invisible Hand economy, with the what-was-that-thing-again Transpacific Partnership Pirate Ship cruising offshore, ready to blow away the vestiges of regulation and sovereignty. In our local paper this weekend, the (very pro)business-section editor/maven Robert Trigaux had this to offer, for example:

      “In braver, new workplace ahead looms the 24/7 employee”

      The pwc report —”The Future of Work” — sees three kinds of competing, intertwined workplace worlds ahead.

      First up are mega-corporations that will act more like “mini-states” to compete globally for the best talent with cutthroat efficiency. They will make big demands on the talent they hire in exchange for better pay, benefits and relative job security.

      “The attractions include high rewards for high-fliers,” says pwc. “This is a chance to be one of the ‘haves’ in a world where stable employment is less and less the norm.” It’s also a world in which social responsibility is minimized.

      A second kind of workplace is less competitive but more collaborative. More socially and environmentally responsible businesses will meet the demand of workers who seek more family-friendly values in exchange for less pay. These businesses may gain more prominence if the notion of “sustainable” work habits and lifestyles gain ground in society.

      Finally, there is the “small is beautiful” movement that will be based on the rise of a more fragmented and entrepreneurial workplace. This trend is bolstered by the rise of what pwc calls “the portfolio career” in which many people have come to realize they “could enjoy more flexibility and varied challenges by working freelance or as a contractor for a number of organizations.” link to of course, what he is talking generically about is not “employees,” in most cases — just specialized mopes hired for little “contract” bits. With no rights, and no “benefits.”

      Yeah, enjoy. One hopes for more resurgence of UNIONS, where us shlubs finally wake up and get organized, rather than fractioning off into violently competing little individualized fungible task units, living in our cars…

      • While JTMcPhee makes some interesting projections, they stop short of the ultimate goal of employers: ownership of the employee.

        We are rapidly reaching a condition where people will be willing to work for sustenence. Nothing else makes the greedy corporatist drool so voluminously.

        But to ensure that no one messes with this gravy train, they will be expecting SCOTUS to rule that when an employee is taken on, said employee retains NO rights whatsoever which are not granted by the employer. The employee is declared to be property, and will be used and/or discarded as “business conditions” indicate. The weasel wording of the dominant opinion will claim that this isn’t slavery, but a “voluntary” renunciation of personal rights as no one human was forcing the employee to agree to employment.

        And the FOX fools who increasingly dominate the body politic will never see anything wrong with this racket.

        • Blurkel, to make your day even better, might I suggest you read a very interesting set of six short atricles put up on Naked Capitalism not so long ago? Under the headline “Journey Into A Libertarian Future” — it’s quite a fun exposition, that takes your addendum even further. Here’s the link: link to

          Resistance is futile? At least the Borg got job security and community for their loss of rights and individual identity… link to

        • You’ve hit on a key delusion of Americans. Because our slavery tradition was based on kidnapping, our oligarchs can now claim that it’s not slavery as long as it’s entered into voluntarily. Europeans know better because they are mostly descended from peons, who lost all their freedom in one unfair market transaction after another, and Asians know better because their own parents might have been debt serfs. For them, modernity is largely about being saved from the “property rights” of oligarchs monopolizing power.

          For Americans, the myth persists that our ancestors were free yeoman farmers, and that all subsequent improvements in life were due to our beloved entrepreneurial masters and all degenerations were due to evil elected government. Slavery thus must have been due to a misunderstanding, not due to capitalists finally revealing their full agenda.

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