Originally Published by James C Harrington, TCRP Director
For Americans, Labor Day is that end-of-summer holiday which wraps up vacation time and ushers in the school year. We don’t remind ourselves that unions originated Labor Day in 1882 to pay tribute to workers, mostly immigrants, who were in the throes of organizing against an economic structure that grotesquely exploited men, women and children in factories, mines and sweat shops and on docks, railroads and ranches.
It is shameful we rarely recall and honor the brave struggle of these workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to better their families’ lives — and our lives. We have a collective amnesia about the nearly half-century of their suffering, jailings, beatings and sometimes death that brought about better wages, increased workplace safety, curtailed child labor, provided retirement and sick leave, and promoted the common good. It eventually gave us the 40-hour work week and eight-hour work day, and it passed minimum wage and overtime pay laws.
The battle goes on
We now take these hard-won rights as a given and rarely recall the immense sacrifice that made our lives better and these rights real. But the struggle is far from over.
The U.S. Economic Policy Institute reports that one percent of this nation holds 35 percent of its wealth. The top 10 percent receive 45 percent of the income, while the other 90 percent split up the remaining 55 percent.
About 46.2 million people live in poverty, a steadily rising number and the largest in the 52 years for which estimates have been published.
Texas has one of the country’s highest poverty rates with nearly four million people at or below the poverty line, pushing 20 percent, well above the national average of about 15 percent. Child poverty is significantly higher in Texas than across the country.
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Non-college-educated women, working full time, earn 77 percent of what similar male workers make, for which they suffer a detrimental cumulative effect over their lifetime. For African-American workers overall, the comparison with white workers is in the low 70s; and for Hispanic workers, in the low 60 percentile.
This all is partly tied to the demise of full-time jobs with benefits. Ever more common are lower-paying part-time jobs, which require a family to hold two or three to survive. And there are fewer benefits, meaning more out-of-pocket medical costs. Nor is the minimum wage any longer a living wage.
Workers’ rights are based on the inherent dignity of a person. Workers are not simply a means of production like raw materials and capital. They bring unique talents to their jobs. In return, they are entitled to work in conditions that enhance their dignity rather than detract from it.
Solidarity is the key
Martin Luther King Jr. always tied civil rights and economic rights together. In fact, the march we mark for its 50th anniversary was named the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
We belong to one human family — a family that crosses boundaries of race, class and country in an economy that is more globalized and interdependent every day. Our ultimate focus must be the common good, not short-term self-interest. We all must look beyond our boundaries and comfort levels to speak for the voiceless, promote human rights and dignity, and seek the good of all — and future generations. Solidarity is the key.
This is how we can best honor those who brought us Labor Day and made our lives better.