A blog by Barry Edelson

Love of Labor Lost

"Over the span of man's history, although a phenomenal amount of education, persuasion, indoctrination and incantation has been devoted to the effort, ordinary people have never been fully persuaded that toil is as agreeable as its alternatives."
—John Kenneth Galbraith, "The Affluent Society"

[The following first appeared in the The New York Times' Long Island Weekly on September 5, 1999.]

Considering the long hours we have become accustomed to working and the stress of job survival in the era of corporate downsizing, perhaps Long Islanders can be forgiven for treating Labor Day as just another three-day vacation whose origins are lost in the mists of history.

However, forgetting why Labor Day came about in the first place and what it represented to working people of previous generations is more than just another example of collective amnesia. It is a wasted opportunity for improving our working lives and the quality of life that work is supposed to support.

How ironic that achieving job security and a shorter work week were among the labor movement's highest priorities in the first half of this century. In our increasingly service-based economy, the abandonment of these goals, which were once held as rights by working people, plainly illustrates how the decline in the fortunes of the labor movement has had a negative impact on all working people.

On Long Island, 100,000 jobs were lost between 1988 and 1993. Only a few years ago, the news media was rife with stories of law partners and corporate vice presidents stunned to find themselves among the ranks of the unemployed. Now, according to a report posted on the Long Island Association's website, Nassau and Suffolk Counties have regained all the jobs lost in the last recession.

But economic reality is always much more complicated than mere statistics. Long Island high schools combined have graduated an average of 25,000 students a year in this decade, all of whom enter the labor market straight from school or a few years later when they leave college. If those young people find a job in New York City or move away altogether, others are only too happy to take their place, as evidenced by Long Island's booming real estate market and the accompanying boomlet in elementary school enrollment.

In other words, one new job in 1999 doesn't necessarily equal one recovered life from 1992, any more than a new low-income housing unit in Hempstead necessarily finds a tenant from a demolished building in Brookhaven. Thousands of eliminated positions at Grumman, Unisys, Chase Manhattan, Chemical Bank and many smaller firms will never come back, and while many of those who filled them have surely done well in recent years, many others will never fully recover their lost income and savings.

Economic analysis also fails to reveal the high price in longer hours that is being paid for our current prosperity. Though the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that hourly wage earners continue to work an average of about 35 hours a week, how many people do you know in salaried jobs who work a 9–5 day any more? In the aftermath of school shootings we bemoan the inattention of parents and erosion of values, but are loath to challenge the gospel of hard work that leaves so many moms and dads stuck in the office until well after the dinner hour.

It never occurred to most of those downsized executives in the last recession that they might not have been tossed unceremoniously out of their offices had they been organized against such action. Nor does it occur to the computer programmers and sales managers who now routinely work 12-hour days that their companies can claim higher productivity levels in part because each of their employees is doing the work of one-and-a-half people, but without equivalent compensation.

These points naturally fall on deaf ears during a time of economic expansion. With jobs aplenty, low inflation and a delirious stock market, people seem more willing than ever to accept the devil's bargain of American capitalism: in exchange for the freedom to sell their skills to the highest bidder, employees accept that they can be fired at will. But a couple of years ago, millions of workers in Asia were just as sanguine as Americans about their prospects. And a decade ago, many thousands of Wall Street's best and brightest also thought the sky was the limit. When the bottom next falls out — and it will, if not for everyone — many will wonder what they could have done to protect themselves.

It is worth remembering on the last Labor Day of the century that the law establishing this holiday was pushed hastily through a nervous Congress during the election year of 1894 following a brutal government crackdown against strikers at the Pullman railroad car company near Chicago. We forget at our peril that labor unions, now dismissed by many as corrupt and anachronistic, once led a courageous and often deadly struggle for safer working conditions, the minimum wage, health and retirement benefits and, most of all, the right of collective bargaining.

Labor Day should remind us that the salary levels and working conditions Long Islanders, like other Americans, consider theirs by right today were bought with blood, and that many working people around the world still live a life little better than slavery. What a pity it will be if this past century of steadily increasing well-being for workers should be looked back upon by future generations as the high-water mark of labor rights, rather than the foundation for a permanent improvement in the way we live and work.

September 7, 2009
For more on the subject of working, read Chapter 3 of Cruel Jokes: "Work is Good for You".

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