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Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day

Cartoon: Executive hanging a 'happy labor day' sign while standing on the back of a laborerOnce per year the USA celebrates Labor Day, a national holiday originating from 1800's celebrations of trade workers and the social/economic benefits they bring to our society. So, is this holiday only an antiquated excuse for an extra time to sleep in?

Let's use the day to examine the serious economic and labor struggles that still plague our country.

It is increasingly difficult for the average worker to support a family. In most states, minimum wage is well below the living wage (there is a big difference between the two). Ironically, thousands of folks will go to work on Labor Day because they need the money and can't afford a day of rest.

When folks are desperate for work, they will endure any number of abuses or indignities. They may work in dangerous environments, or be paid less than promised. Workers may be given insufficient training, leading to injury or embarrassment when they don't perform to standards.

A cartoon shark dressed as a loan shark
Employees may be held at work long after their shift is over, if that is what the boss deems necessary. Maybe they need to pick the kids up from school, but they don't dare leave and risk losing their jobs. Workers may be required to maintain an open schedule to be placed in shifts as is convenient for the company, but may not be told their schedule until the last minute, and so cannot line up child care or other jobs.

Folks may spend an hour on the bus to get to a job, only to arrive and find out they aren't needed that day. Or they work for two hours and then get sent home. "Try again tomorrow." And if they don't show up for that chance, they know they loose the opportunity for later.

There are serious consequences of this labor disparity. Workers skip meals so that their children may eat. Folks turn to loan sharks to make ends meet, entrenching themselves in a spiral of debt (see post: The Cost of Being Poor). Families make tough choices to cut out "non-essentials" like medicine (see post: Healthcare Reform), clothing, and nutritious food.

And as the nation bemoans the 7% unemployment rate, unemployment in communities of color remains at 13%--the same racialized wage disparity ratio that Dr. King bemoaned in 1967. Indeed, while analysts fret about about the housing market, there continue to be huge disparities in homeownership across race.

Book cover: Nickel and Dimed
Take a close look at the words of Jeremiah 22:13-16. Woe to we that profit from injustice and gain economic security at the expense of others! We "who make our neighbor serve us for nothing and do not give them their wages." Jesus himself urges that "the workers deserve their wages." And yet, as more states put an end to collective bargaining, the wealthy receive a smaller tax burden now than they have in the last 80 years.

Part of our problem is that we have a very warped perspective of economic reality. Particularly since housing in the United States is largely segregated by economic standing, people look around themselves and feel that, on the whole, there is equal opportunity and prosperity for everyone.

PBS News Hour recently conducted an informal survey, asking people identify the sort of economy that exist in the USA. Their findings are telling. Also, Jon Stewart points out the huge economic disparities that most folks gloss over. Both of these videos are embedded below.

Take time this week to give thanks for your own economic security, no matter what level it is at.
For more insight into the issues mentioned above, read Barbara Ehrenreich's 'Nickel and Dimed' or play this excellent interactive game to see what choices you would make given some stark realities.


  1. great post... I'd been thinking, "woo, day off" but for many that's
    simply not the case. Walking around my neighborhood, all the restaurants
    were open...

    I just started following  on Twitter, which highlights a lot of the points you made, albeit in a
    much more cynical and depressing way. Also, I saw these charts

    right before I read your post -- the vast majority of countries have
    much better labor laws than the U.S. -- required days off every week,
    paid leave for all workers -- Why don't we have these things in the
    U.S.?  I'm pretty sure we WANT those things... Honestly I think it is
    because those with the political power already have them so are
    unmotivated to fight for them for others, whether due to ignorance or
    simply not caring.

    Also relevant -- Fox News commentator slams maternity leave as the first
    step to socialism... then sings its praises months later after having a

  2. Yeah, ironically, I am noticing that it is the lower-paid service sector that was more likely to work today. Most business folks are off, though there is a subset on the job that are just work-workaholics, but don't actually need the money. I think this is also a troubling phenomenon of those that get self-worth and identity from their occupation. It can work, but it is also dangerous.

    There are also those that are on salary, so the extra day of work doesn't affect them financially, but the pressure to perform and create output is such that they feel they must work though the holiday. I think this speaks to lack of sanctity we give to days of rest, as was beautifully illustrated by the link you site.

    The only concern I have relates to the first map on your link. I wonder what it would do to the folks that need every penny if they were legally bound to take a day off. Obviously this applies to hourly wage workers, not really salaried folk. Perhaps the laws says one day off per job, but not necessarily per person, which would possible get around the personal freedoms issue.

    Re Fox commentator: *rolls eyes*. I see that sort of thing A LOT around my work place. Women looking down their noses at those that choose to have families, only to do a 180 when they find themselves pregnant.

  3. A lot of those same countries in the first map also require PAID leave though. And I think the way it works is that your boss has to let you take a day off, but if you choose not to take it that's fine too.

    When working hourly I remember trading hours with folks and switching shifts to attempt to work the system to give each other time off when we needed it.

    I think in the U.S. time off is seen as a privilege, not a right, "earned" by those who "worked hard enough" to get salaried jobs or work on their own.

    Can we at LEAST get a law saying all employers must let their employees get time off to go vote? My mother has missed out on voting multiple times when she was hourly because she couldn't get time off on election day. (the political implications of restricting a whole class of voting is problematic...)

  4. So hourly workers to? how do they handle that? I guess pay for an 8 hr day?

    As far as choosing not to take the day off, I could see how a lot of subtle pressure could built not to take it. You are so right about time off, being seen as privilege rather than a right...or even a commandment (Sabbath!)Amen on the voting bit! Or extended poll hours. Or availability of mailing ballots for all. Ohio allows everyone to vote by mail that wants to. I love it! Super convenient! I don't know what it means for voting fraud in our state though. 

  5. Also related:


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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