In the 1880s, municipalities, and then states, began to recognize the efforts of local workers, artisans and laborers on a designated day. The desire to honor these contributors as the foundation-layers of local economies spread, and Labor Day was established nationally. In this country of “us and thems”, it seems archaic and strangely beautiful to me that we all celebrate Labor Day, as if a part of our nature knows we should celebrate the faithful contributions of each member of society, even if we rarely do.
American financial systems and economic stratification reveal that although we were once a society of producers, workers and laborers, we have transformed into a people who value capital over labor. In Joan C. Williams’ new book, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, she argues, “over the past 40-odd years, elites stopped connecting with the working class, whom prior generations had given a place of honor.” Do we still celebrate labor as a society, or have we reduced laborers to “them”, people we can mock and exploit?
The American consumer economy needs both capital and labor to survive. Those who supply capital—investors—risk a lot up front in order to give a business the chance to succeed. Their investment of money is crucial, and allows an idea to become a reality. Patents are procured, factories built, and supply chains secured. Labor then steps in, supplying the expertise, time and work to make a product demanded by consumers. While rapid technological advances continue to automate factory work, threatening the necessity of labor, workers are still crucial contributors to society, both through their skill and in the economic foundation they provide. Nevertheless, our economic system, regulations and policies prioritize and reward capital, while essentially undermining and ignoring the contributions of labor.
In the last 50 years, investments and growth measured in the New York Stock Exchange have risen 2,200%, returning massive profits to investors. During the same time period labor income stagnated, after initially growing: “the typical white working-class household income doubled in the three decades after World War II but has not risen appreciably since” (Williams). Viewed another way, the top 10% of Americans gained 96% of our economy’s growth in the last 40 years, while the bottom 90% shared a paltry 4% growth in incomes (Business Insider). This economic disparity represents soaring wealth on the part of the top 10%, and utter stagnation on the part of the laborers whose productivity largely created the wealth enjoyed by the wealthy. In 1978, CEOs made an average of more than thirty times their employees; in 2013 they made nearly 300 times more than their workforce. Today, a parent working full time at minimum wage qualifies for and requires SNAP benefits in order to feed her children. Should this be true of a society that celebrates Labor Day? For that matter, should this be true of a society who claims to believe work brings dignity?
On this Labor Day, I would like to suggest three actions we can all take to honor laborers.
1) Ask a simple question: Do you have greater impact as a citizen or as a consumer?
2) Labor. Labore. From the Latin for work. Do some with your hands.
3) Examine the part you play in undervaluing workers.
Consumer activists love to decry inhumane working conditions in plants around the world. We feel a moral obligation to intervene when we hear that laborers in Bangladesh die in horrible fires, largely the result of the condition of the factories in which they worked. Apple was urged to change when activists exposed the brutal environment at Foxconn in China, the company responsible for making many of their products. And yet. We love buying cheap clothing, and many of us are dependent on Apple devices to function everyday. In other words, our mistreatment of labor is not only the fault of greedy policies that reward capital and undervalue labor; we are all complicit in a system that abuses labor when we buy products whose low prices require underpaying the workers who produce the goods. Many of us think we are powerless to affect change as citizens; while this may feel true, we have enormous purchasing power, and these daily choices can institute change. If we really want to expand our us, we need to consider how we contribute to the diminishing prospects of laborers through what we buy.
My faith leads me to believe that because we are created in the image of God, we were made to create. I grew up on a farm where we built barns and decks and chicken coops and porches all the time, and even though my kids are being raised in the city we build something together every summer. Recycling bins. Corn hole boards. A charging station for our devices. There is something deeply satisfying about working with your hands. Indeed, in 2013 Pope Francis asserted, “We do not get dignity from power or money or culture. We get dignity from work.” Good labor transcends time and lets you lose yourself in a task. There is a reason that the rise of our manic commitment to social media is being followed a decade later by a resurgence in what’s been called the Makers Movement. People have started making things and they’re hooked. Can we remember to connect this hipster movement to the laborers who built our economy, whom we celebrate on Labor Day? They are not distinct.
Much has been made of the new cultural power of working class people. Indeed, they shocked the world when they revealed our faulty dependence on political polls, installing Mr. Trump as president in 2016. While their motivations have been maligned as racist and bigoted, this is not a fair characterization of working people. Williams argues that “when elites commit to equality for many different groups but arrogantly dismiss” the working poor, they have “written off the anger” of the working poor as “racism, sexism, nativism—beneath our dignity to take seriously.” Working people are not all xenophobic and misogynistic; many were and are not at all interested in endorsing such positions socially or culturally. Instead, I know some who are simply tired of being ignored, undervalued, impoverished and mistreated. If we want to form a more perfect union, to be a government for and by all people, then perhaps we need to look at the foundational systems that create and sustain inequality. We are not only deeply broken in the way we deal with race, we are also fundamentally unjust in the way we undervalue and dismiss hard working poor people as bigoted and ignorantly angry. This Labor Day week, let’s celebrate all parts of America, rather than rewarding only the risk of investment and the cultural outlook of wealthier Americans.
Next week: What to do with confederate monuments?