Labor Day weekend is just around the corner. For lots of folks, this holiday is an excuse to have a cookout and enjoy the end of summer, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Using that day for rest and relaxation – instead of work – is exactly the point of Labor Day. But it’s also important to remember the roots of the holiday and to reflect on how organized labor is faring today.
Since our country was founded, there’s been an inherent struggle between the twin pillars of our national economic system – labor and capital. Capital (our nation’s resources and the owners of those resources) seeks to grow, invest, innovate, and bring financial prosperity to the owners, while labor seeks to empower, balance, stabilize, and ensure an equity stake for the workers that put that capital to use. Capital can’t exist without labor, but the power imbalance is often skewed in capital’s favor.
Labor Day is intended to honor the struggles and sacrifices of organized labor throughout American history, and remind us that organized labor is the only effective check against unbridled capitalism. The holiday is as much a hard-fought labor demand as is the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, workplace safety regulations, and the right to form unions – all things that are now taken for granted in today’s economy.
Organized labor, however, has seen its power steadily decline over the last several decades as deregulation, union-busting, corporate monopolization, and vast wealth inequality diminish the power of individual workers to form collectives. That’s not just bad for workers, that’s bad for every facet of this country.
The number of American workers represented by a union has declined from a peak of about 32% in 1960 to just 11.7 percent in 2019. That sharp downturn has reduced the power of unions and the overall power of workers to bargain with corporate bosses for essential things like fairer wages and benefits. It’s no coincidence that over the same period, the wages of American workers stayed mostly stagnant while productivity soared, decoupling wages from productivity for the first time in US history. That growing gap has sharpened our nation’s staggering wealth inequality and ensured the US consistently ranks as the worst developed country for basic worker rights and protections.
As the nature of work in America has shifted from manufacturing and manual labor to the information and technology economy, the decimation of organized labor has become a crisis. Corporations like Uber and DoorDash actively center their business models around labor exploitation, Amazon is hiring internal spies specifically for union-busting and neutralizing “labor organizing threats” after a year of scandals for endangering their workers, and a corporate-friendly Congress and court system has refused to uphold anti-trust laws that keep corporations from short-shifting consumers and workers alike.
These anti-labor moves not only decrease worker power and keep millions of workers on a constant financial precipice, they make our entire economy weaker and more vulnerable to total meltdown – just like we’ve seen with the COVID-19 crisis. Other developed countries with a much more empowered workforce have responded to the crisis with worker-first policies intended to keep payrolls going, healthcare protected, and most importantly for a pandemic – keep people in their homes. None of that is happening in the US, and we’re paying the price for it in lives lost to COVID-19 and an absolutely unprecedented slow-burn economic catastrophe that will be with us for years to come.
So this Labor Day, we urge you to reflect on why strong labor ensures a strong economy, and on what we need to do to ensure that organized labor comes back in a full force for a better, more just economy on the other side of this crisis.