THE BLOG

A Peaceful Revolution: The Last Summer (Without a Vacation)

09/13/2007 09:53 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It's Labor Day, and the headline in The Seattle Times caught my eye immediately: "We Work Hard -- U.S. at the Top in Productivity." The article explained that the most recent International Labor Organization report confirmed what most of us take for granted -- U.S. workers produce more per capita wealth than workers in any other country, some $63,885 a year. Due to early adoption of computer technologies, Americans are also highly productive per hour -- ranking second only to Norway. But, the article explained, a big part of our annual lead comes because in the U.S., "more people were working longer hours to make ends meet."

Despite a dramatic increase in productivity since 2001, "the share of national income going to corporate profits has dwarfed the amount going to workers paychecks," according to the Associated Press.

So there you have it. We're number one in productivity. But it's a different story when you compare other indices of our quality of life with those in Europe, for example.

Here's just a short list of where we fall behind:

* Hunger: the U.S. has the highest percentage of hungry people.

* Poverty: Our poverty rate is two to three times European levels. Ditto for child poverty.

* Gap Between Rich and Poor: Ours is by far the widest and growing wider. Our middle-class, as a percentage of the population is smaller than anywhere in Europe.

* Obesity: We're also the widest.

* Health: The U.S. now ranks 42nd in the world in longevity, down from 11th in 1980. All but one European country does better. We also rank 42nd in infant mortality, worse than any European country. And the World Health Organization rates our health care system a dismal 37th in the world, despite the fact that we spend more on health care than any other country.

* Mental Health: U.S. rates of anxiety and depression are among the highest in the world and double those in Europe.

* Child Welfare: Only the United Kingdom ranks lower, according to UNICEF.

* Child Abuse: More than double European rates.

* Education: Our test scores and functional literacy rate are below those of almost all European countries.

* Crime and punishment: We lead the industrial world in violent crime despite an incarceration rate 7-10 times higher than in other countries.

* Environment: We're worst in air pollution, carbon dioxide emissions and overall environmental sustainability, and next-to-worst in municipal waste per capita.

* Savings and Security: The U.S. ranks next to last in personal savings in comparison with EU countries. Ditto for rates of income replacement for unemployment or pensions.

* Voting rate: Bottom of the pack.

One could go on with these dismal numbers but since it's Labor Day, I'll focus on one telling set of numbers. The U.S. is the ONLY industrial nation with no law guaranteeing paid childbirth leave, paid sick leave or vacation time.

MomsRising, the National Partnership for Women and Families, labor unions and many other groups have been working mightily on the issues of family leave and sick leave, with some notable successes -- California and Washington state for family leave; San Francisco for paid sick leave. They deserve our deepest appreciation.

But let's not be afraid to challenge the scandal that is American vacations. The recent "No Vacation Nation" study done by the Center for Economic and Policy Research confirmed what every breathing American knows, or ought to. The U.S. is way at the bottom of the pack when it comes to paid vacation time. Every other industrial country but the U.S. has a paid vacation law. Europeans get at least four weeks by law after the first year on the job; most get six weeks or more. By contrast, a quarter of American workers get none at all; the average in less than 14 days and we only take 10 of those, afraid of the work that piles up when we're gone. For many workers, vacation time is used only for long weekends, to run errands at home.

This is an outrage and it's time to call it so. It's time for progressive political leaders to stand up and say, "America needs a break." The organization I represent, Take Back Your Time, is calling for a three week paid vacation law as an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. We call it the "Leave Protection, Family Bonding and Personal Well-Being Act." We call on every presidential candidate to come out and support this. We're sure it will give a jump start to some currently moribund campaigns.

There are clear arguments for such a law:

* Vacations are shown to improve health -- those who take them have only about half as much risk of a heart attack.

* Vacations are family-friendly. For many of us, the memories of family vacations are the strongest memories we have of childhood, a time when we bonded most closely with our parents. Having just taken a one-week camping trip with my son, I can attest to the value of this.

* Vacations help prevent worker burnout. They improve productivity, and especially, creativity, central to success in the information economy.

This is not about slacking; this is about health and family. But the effort to reclaim vacations does challenge our values. It asks the question, what do we do with progress? Must we use all of our productivity gains to produce more and more stuff, more and more unequally distributed? Or do we value time in our lives -- to learn, to think, to eat slowly, to build friendships and strengthen families, to love, to volunteer, to laugh and sing and paint and play, to exercise, to appreciate the wonders of the earth at their own pace, to read to a child or raft on a river?

What is progress for? What is productivity for? What's the economy for, anyway?

When will progressives and especially progressive candidates raise these questions to a crescendo that cannot be ignored? I know from speaking around the country that people are waiting to hear these things, wanting to hear them. A few months ago, a desk clerk at a hotel in Florida told me her employer had cancelled her two-week vacation for seven years in a row, paying her extra to work instead, but not offering her the choice. "It's not that I don't need the money," she said. "I'm a single mom and I'm a clerk in a hotel after all. But I need the time more. I'm desperate for some time off but I would have to quit this job to get it and I can't afford to do that."

Test the waters and you will find she was not alone. Join our campaign by going to www.timeday.org and help with an effort that I am certain will capture the imagination of working Americans.

Let's make this the last summer without a vacation. October 24th (Take Back Your Time Day), 2008, will mark the 70th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Let's make sure that when that anniversary comes around the Act includes paid vacations. Let's give Americans -- the most productive workers on the planet -- some time to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

John de Graaf is the President of Take Back Your Time and lead organizer of the What's the Economy for, Anyway? conference, coming up in Washington DC on Oct. 5-7 (see www.timeday.org/economyconference).