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September 02, 2013 10:35 AM Labor Day

By Ed Kilgore

It’s unfortunate that this year’s Labor Day has been overshadowed in American politics and news coverage by a foreign policy crisis, since we really need every opportunity we can get to meditate on the contributions of wage-earners to national prosperity, and the eroding rights and living standards they are suffering from in exchange.

Some pundits and pols, unfortunately, keep seeking to turn Labor Day into something entirely alien to its tradition. You may recall (as Paul Krugman did today) Eric Cantor’s tribute to business owners in his Labor Day message last year. On Friday we were treated to a Peggy Noonan column about Labor Day that wound up being about the “romance of the marketplace” and the deep insights of Ronald Reagan—who, whatever else you think about him, did not exactly exemplify the Work Ethic—into the connection between hard work and the American character.

Please: on this one day a year, can we be spared the contempt of the wealthy and the powerful for the “losers” who still work for wages and can’t seem to save and invest? Can Republican pols perhaps re-learn the lip service for the necessity of collective bargaining rights and the utility of unions they used to employ on occasions like this? And can conservative “thinkers” express some understanding that workers are not mere raw materials to be burned up in the creative forges of heroic capitalists? Can we please stipulate that the wildly unequal wealth and income levels in this country that are getting more unequal every day are not the pure product of natural or marketplace selection or—more laughable yet—the results of employers and individual workers freely contracting as equals?

Probably not.

So sad as it is, we have to accept that Labor Day as it was once celebrated (even though, as Kathleen Geier explained here last year, it was a watered-down event meant to displace American solidarity with the International Workers Day on May 1, itself spurred by events in the U.S.) has become largely a partisan event commemorating controversial ideas like collective bargaining rights, workplace safety regulations, minimum wage laws that reflect the actual cost of living, and equal access to health care and education and a dignified retirement and the skills needed to survive in a globalized and technology-driven economy.

For those of us who do think Labor Day is worth celebrating, it’s a day when we must acknowledge that the belief in the steady March of Progress that once characterized the American labor movement and the American liberal political tradition has eroded along with union membership and economic security. My friend Tom Schaller summed it up well in his own Labor Day column:

The shameful reality is that worker productivity rose 80 percent from 1973 to 2011, yet median hourly compensation during the same period grew only about 10 percent. Since 2000, productivity is up 23 percent, but inflation-adjusted hourly pay has flat-lined.
Increasingly, the reward for hard work in America is, well, more work — at the same or lower compensation and with less time for play. Tell that to your blowhard uncle at this year’s Labor Day picnic when he starts bellyaching about how nobody in this country works anymore.

And tell it to Eric Cantor and Peggy Noonan, who have forgotten what Americans used to understand about the “dignity of labor” and its material rewards.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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