The headline in my local newspaper today reads: "Jobless must set sights lower."
I wouldn't be surprised if your local newspaper or radio station has a similar story today. This is the kind of sensational angle the media loves to focus on during all types of holidays. For example, a Christmas day massacre or a Halloween candy poisoning will get endless attention by editors, especially in this Internet age where all most media care about is how many times you guys click on a story.
But on this Labor Day, a time when we're supposed to be celebrating the advances workers have achieved in the workplace, let's not just roll over and accept what has become the standard employer line -- you have to take less money for more work -- and let's concentrate on what needs to be done to bring back a job market with better quality jobs for the working stiff.
Today, President Obama is expected to announce a series of steps to stimulate the economy. Yes, the pundits will be tearing him apart today, saying it's just a government bailout and the free market needs to do its thing. But if we look back in history, these types of measures the administration is touting are what brought workers back from the brink during another bad economic down turn, the Great Depression.
During that time there was a segment of society doing quite well while the regular guys and gals suffered, and during this recession many of those telling workers to accept less and do more are also doing quite well.
Where have all the economic gains gone? Mostly to the top. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty examined tax returns from 1913 to 2008. They discovered an interesting pattern. In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of American families took in about 9 percent of the nation's total income; by 2007, the top 1 percent took in 23.5 percent of total income.
It's no coincidence that the last time income was this concentrated was in 1928. I do not mean to suggest that such astonishing consolidations of income at the top directly cause sharp economic declines. The connection is more subtle.
Reich has some suggestions how to make things better:
THE Great Depression and its aftermath demonstrate that there is only one way back to full recovery: through more widely shared prosperity. In the 1930s, the American economy was completely restructured. New Deal measures -- Social Security, a 40-hour work week with time-and-a-half overtime, unemployment insurance, the right to form unions and bargain collectively, the minimum wage -- leveled the playing field.
In the decades after World War II, legislation like the G.I. Bill, a vast expansion of public higher education and civil rights and voting rights laws further reduced economic inequality. Much of this was paid for with a 70 percent to 90 percent marginal income tax on the highest incomes. And as America's middle class shared more of the economy's gains, it was able to buy more of the goods and services the economy could provide. The result: rapid growth and more jobs.
By contrast, little has been done since 2008 to widen the circle of prosperity. Health-care reform is an important step forward but it's not nearly enough.
That's where Obama's proposals may come in.
This news alert just in from Politico.com, according to a White House spokesman:
"The president will work with Congress to enact a new up-front investment in our nation's infrastructure - an investment that would help jump-start additional job creation, while also laying the foundation for future growth. This initial investment would fund improvements in the nation's surface transportation, as well as our airports and air traffic control system." The measures include the "establishment of an Infrastructure Bank to leverage federal dollars, and focus on investments of national and regional significance that often fall through the cracks in the current siloed transportation programs," and "the integration of high-speed rail on an equal footing into the surface transportation program."
It's hard to tell whether such measures will be enough, and a lot of smart and dumb people will surely be debating this today. But the bottom line is, just encouraging workers to accept a worse lot in life will not reinvigorate the middle class, and it won't help the economy at large, right?
The answer could lie in renewed organizing efforts.
It takes the organized efforts of working people to reverse these trends toward exclusion and to ensure that each new epoch will bring a shared prosperity. During the transition to the industrial economy, it was not preordained that the auto, steel, or textile industries would provide living wages, health care, pensions, and other benefits that allowed for a stable, thriving middle class in this country. Rather, employees needed to use the institution of collective bargaining to come together, negotiate with their employers, and demand the conditions that would provide a healthy quality of life for working people.
Clearly the quality of work life is suffering.
The story telling workers to shoot low in my local paper today quoted a worker, Sue Fritz, 49, who works at a state facility helping care for people who have developmental disabilities.
"We're working shorter with less people, and more is being expected of us. It's a very strenuous day. To have to get up and go back in every morning...you have no choice."
There are choices, and things do change if workers want them to.
Let's go back in time to the first Labor Day.
Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss offers a history lesson:
It was first celebrated in this country in the 1880s -- at a time when people commonly worked 12-hour days. The first Labor Day rally, in 1882, was in support of an eight-hour workday.
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