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Reflections on Labor Day: Economic Statistics & the Scapegoat Card 
(Posted September 4, 2006)

If you ask most Americans about the major holidays, chances are they will be able to tell you something about their origin and/or purpose.  This is certainly the case with Christmas, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving.  People are also apt to have knowledge about "holidays" which are largely commercial creations: Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, and the like.  

Yet today the United States is celebrating Labor Day, and more people are concerned with putting away their white outfits and and counting down the days to the start of football season than in considering the roots of Labor Day.  I find this odd, because in theory, Labor Day is the holiday that should generate the greatest amount of across-the-board support from Americans, as it is not related to specific religions or culturally-contestable events or individuals. 

Originally conceived in 1882 by unions, its uniquely populist spirit is perhaps best exemplified by the labor leader Samuel Gompers, who astutely noted that "All other holidays are in more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another."  In contrast, Labor Day was intended to honor workers and acknowledge their significant contributions to society.  Activities often included parades, marches and speeches, all designed to boost morale. . 

I mention all this because from recent economic data, workers need something to smile about. 

According to the Census Bureau, 12 percent of the population lives in poverty.  As if that was not bad enough, consider that this is the first year since 2001 that the poverty rate has not increased. 

But you can't say these figures are a result of people not working.  On the contrary, Americans are working at record levels.  Even setting aside the oxymoronic "working vacation," the statistics are astounding: Americans work 200 hours more than the British, 300 hours more than the French, and 400 hours more than Germans.  Husband-and- wife families are working 500 hours more than during the 1980s. 

And as you might expect, with all those extra hours comes increased productivity, defined as the amount of work an individual produces in an hour.  Usually, compensation (wages + benefits) is commensurate with productivity.  But not so in the United States.  In the years 2000 - 2005, productivity increased 16.5 percent, but compensation has grown only 7.2 percent.  Before you take solace in that 7 percent, know that inflation increased by 8 percent.  Yet we are constantly being reminded that the economy is growing.  

My pockets aren't any deeper these days.  If you're reading this, yours probably aren't either. So where is all the money going?

Would it surprise you if it were the wealthy?  Between the combination of political influence that resulted in changes to the tax code and manipulation of high-stakes financial and corporate systems, the richest 5 percent of the population owns 59 percent of the wealth of the country. They have doubled their ownership of the nation since the 1970s. Yet attempts to increase the minimum wage are routinely defeated and cities are often threatened with the loss of businesses should they institute living wage ordinances.  Things are so bad that university presidents and hospital administrators, fields that not so long ago were considered to have values above the bottom line, have gotten into labor disputes with janitors, cooks and other non-salaried workers.  

This means a whole lot of people are living in economic insecurity. And whenever people are uncertain about their dollars, scapegoating and conflict inevitably ensues. Anyone with basic historical knowledge of the United States knows this is a fact.  Every immigrant group who has entered America has been blamed for various ills based on primarily economic worries, including those who were eventually "elevated" to normative white/American status such as Germans and Italians.  Those with more melanin than their European counterparts, primarily Chinese and African Americans, have never been able to clear this invisible threshold and continue to be blamed for problems. African Americans in particular have been the foundation of entire industries dedicated to establishing, monitoring, and curtailing the perceived threat they present to so-called "civil society." 

In this regard, Mexicans are the "new black" as far as bearing the brunt of criticism for all that ails America.  For every announcement of layoffs or the unsaid-but-undeniable-realization of falling wages, there are Minutemen proclamations, demands for a 2000 mile fence along the border, and Republicans ranting about the Mexican conspiracy to annex the Southwestern states.  I'm sure it won't be long until there's a crisis involving a Mexican "terrorist."      

Getting back to the spirit of Labor Day, one must realize that such scapegoating is a textbook example of the divide and conquer ethos that the wealthy have used to increase their control of resources. The presence of Mexicans in the United States has nothing to do with the fact that CEOs make 262 times the salary of employees.  Quibbling absorbs precious energy that would be better utilized building bridges (perhaps with Mexicans, anyone?) and strategizing for a 21st century work environment in which globalization and technology present significant challenges.  New days demand new ways. 

Towards the end of his life, Martin Luther King made the critical connection between income inequality and social injustice.  There is no better time than Labor Day to reflect on his message as a reminder to keep their eyes on the prize, so to speak.  There is strength in numbers.  And from my vantage point, there are definitely more of us than there are of them.  

Copyright 2006  All rights reserved.

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