AUSTIN, Texas – Americans are pretty tone-deaf when it comes to Labor Day.
Many don’t even know that labor unions created the holiday in 1882 to honor workers, mostly immigrants, who were organizing themselves against appalling wages and inhumane working conditions. Instead, we’ve devalued Labor Day to an end-of-summer holiday and cheapened it into a three-day sales weekend.
We rarely pause to remember, let alone appreciate, the workers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who struggled and sometimes lost their lives to improve wages and working conditions for their families and posterity. They made our lives better.
Labor Day is when we should pay respect for the self-sacrifice, jailings, beatings and sometimes death they endured. Their struggle for justice and dignity brought about the six-day week and then the five-day week; narrowed working hours to 10 hours daily and then eight hours; brought about the minimum wage and overtime pay; and gave rise to the idea of national health care.
Labor Day is also a time for us to take stock of how workers currently are treated and respected. Unfortunately, millions of Americans are denied this respect because of unemployment, underemployment, unjust wages, wage theft, abuse and exploitation.
Even with modest recovery, the economy has not improved the standard of living overall, especially for the poor and working poor. More than 3.5 million people have been jobless for over six months, and that does not include the millions more who have simply lost hope.
This jobs gap pushes wages down. Half of the country’s workers earn less than $27,500 per year, which means a typical family has to hold down two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Not only that, but fewer jobs provide medical insurance or retirement benefits, which eats away at any hope of disposable income for family enjoyment.
More than 46 million people live in poverty, including 16 million children. The economy is not creating an adequate number of jobs that allow workers to provide for themselves and their families. Jobs, wages and poverty are intertwined. The only way to reduce the widening gap between the affluent and the poorest people in our nation is by creating quality jobs that provide just compensation and benefits.
In many communities in America and Texas, wealth and basic needs are separated by only a few blocks or bus stops. While an immense number of people still lack the absolute necessities of life, some live in luxury or squander wealth. How can persons honor one another when extravagance and poverty exist side by side?
We should only support businesses that promote human dignity, pay just wages and protect workers’ rights. There are three ways we can do this:
Do “consumer/worker rights” shopping. We should always buy products that are ethically manufactured and are union-made because they guarantee fair wages and working conditions. There are two good websites for this: www.ethicalconsumer.org and www.unionlabel.org.
We should only patronize those stores, restaurants and coffee shops that pay their employees justly and treat them fairly.
We can raise our political voice to support local minimum and living-wage ordinances and municipal contracts, especially since Congress cannot bring itself to act.
On this Labor Day, let’s commit ourselves to do everything we can in our daily lives to support the workers of our community and country. Supporting them in justice and respect benefits us all. We are, after all, one community.
James Harrington is director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.