Rest. A time of rest from long hours of work. That's the principle enshrined in Labor Day, a 125-year-old American holiday that celebrates the spirit of organized labor. It's the spirit behind the six-day workweek, too. A day of rest was enshrined in monotheism's holy texts, after all, but it didn't become law until labor unions demanded it. ("Thou shalt remember the Sabbath and keep it holy" -- did your boss forget?)
It's also the spirit behind the principle that people who work all their lives deserve a financially secure retirement. Our forebears fought to win us this time of rest, too, and now we're called on to defend it once more.
The White House keeps hinting that the president will once again propose cuts to Medicare and Social Security -- either when he presents his jobs proposal next week, or shortly afterwards. That would roll back the hard-won principle that people who work hard deserve their time of rest. It would also be a harsh blow to a struggling economy after a devastating jobs report.
If Americans return from their Labor Day celebrations to hear their president announce these cuts, it will feel like the breaking of an ancient compact. Voters should encourage him not to make that mistake, and not to break that promise.
Days of Struggle
As the Department of Labor explains, "Labor Day is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers." The first Labor Day celebration took place in New York City in 1882, organized by one of the first trade unions. States and municipalities began recognizing it as a holiday in the years that followed, and Congress designated Labor day a Federal holiday in 1894.
Here's a question: Would a bill like that pass Congress today? How far have we really come in the last hundred years? Workers and their rights are under attack all across the country at the local, state, and national levels. Wisconsin is an encouraging sign of resistance, but we're living in an age where the ultra-wealthy are regaining Gilded Age riches and power while the hard-won rights of working-age Americans are being eroded.
If the President of the United States cuts the retirement benefits Americans have paid for throughout their working lives it would reverse more than a century of progress. And it would be unnecessary. Social Security doesn't contribute to the deficit and is easily fixed with relatively minor revenue adjustments. Medicare can only be fixed by correcting the distortions that for-profit medicine have introduced into our health economy -- or, to put it more plainly, by getting the greed out of health care.
The Department of Labor notes that this holiday "constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country." Is the White House going to celebrate working people on Monday only to give them the short end of the stick on Thursday?
Days of Rest
Holidays and weekends didn't happen by accident. They were the result of hard-won victories. A 60 or even 70-hour working week was typical for industrial workers in the 19th Century. Fights for 10-hour workdays and a six-day work week were a key part of early union struggles. Now we're seeing working hours rise steeply for households, as both adults now work with diminishing success to maintain the standard of living many of their parents enjoyed on a single income.
It's becoming more common for struggling middle-class people to work two jobs to make ends meet, which means their work weeks are going back up to 19th century lengths. And the benefits that used to come with work -- like health insurance, pension, vacations, and paid sick leave -- are becoming rarer and weaker.
For 25 million Americans, their hours of rest are involuntary. That's how many people are unemployed or under-employed in this economy.
As for Medicare and Social Security, I've objected in the past to calling them "entitlements." But if I pay my taxes I'm entitled to police protection. If I pay my insurance and my house burns down, I'm entitled to file a claim.
We didn't destroy the economy with Wall Street greed, or give tax cuts to nonworking billionaires, or start unnecessary wars. So if we've kept our part of the bargain all our lives -- working, following the rules, paying our share -- are we "entitled" to these programs when we retire?
Days of Surrender
The White House's Office of Management and Budget is now forecasting unemployment of 9 percent or greater through next year (and the next election), and above 6 percent through 2016. That would be the end of Barack Obama's second term, if he wins re-election. Unless the president comes forward with a truly bold jobs plan next week, this economic message will be plainly understood by all 25 million struggling Americans:
No, we can't.
The government can create jobs, if it has the political will. We need a bold and effective action plan for employment. That's half the message the president needs to convey: Here's how we're going to create jobs. The other half of the message must say to middle-class Americans who work in offices, shops, factories, homes, and retail outlets, We will protect your financial security. We will not violate the contract your nation made with you: that if you work hard, the benefits you've earned will be waiting for you when you need them.
That promise demands clear commitments from the president: No cuts to Social Security or Medicare. Real health reform that controls runaway costs, so that every American is ensured decent health coverage -- now, and when they retire.
Without bold action the economy will continue to struggle, dooming the prosperity of middle-class Americans -- and the re-election prospects of Democrats. The issues of jobs and "entitlements" (Social Security and Medicare) are closely related. We can't create jobs until more people are able to spend money.
And this is not just an argument about tomorrow's security or the needs of older Americans. The cuts proposed by the president would reduce benefits immediately. That means people will have less money and their fears for the future will discourage them from spending what they have.
August's employment report was grim -- no new jobs and underemployment on the rise. A cut in Social Security benefits would man even less consumer spending, leading to continued stagnation and unemployment.
The end result would be an ongoing cycle of economic -- and moral -- failure.
Days of Action
The president is set to announce his jobs plan sometime next week -- that is, if the Republicans don't decide to change it again. Who knows? They may decide they want to hold a luau (Pina colada, anyone?) or that they don't want to miss karaoke night at the C Street house. But unless another GOP tantrum calls for more coddling, that speech is only a few days away.
Here's an idea: While you're enjoying your long weekend, thanks to the struggles of working people a century ago, why not spare a few minutes to let the White House know how you feel? You can get yourself in the mood by watching this video, which points out the difference between President Obama's pledges and his proposals.
Then you can go here and sign a petition that tells President Obama: Jobs, not cuts. Once you're done, you can hoist a couple of beers, or colas, or protein-enhanced vegetable smoothies, or whatever it is you like to drink on your day off. When you do, don't forget to lift one to those 19th century organizers who made those days possible. We could use some of their spirit right about now.
And while we're offering toasts, here's one: For every American who works for a living -- and every American who can't -- here's to ya.
Happy Labor Day. You've earned it.