Today, as we observe Labor Day, consider this statistic: Last year, the chief executive officers at Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index companies were paid 354 times as much as the average worker. Back in 1980, they made “only” 42 times what the average worker was paid.
And it’s undoubtedly reasonable to believe that these bosses will take today off and participate in what has become the traditional way to observe the occasion: Playing golf, going to the beach, having a picnic or doing almost anything except salute the nation’s laborers.
Maybe Labor Day ought to be renamed, or simply put away for a while. After all, a great many of the people the holiday was intended to honor are required to work today — and often longer hours than usual — because to America’s retailers Labor Day is second only to the day after Thanksgiving (“Black Friday”) as a revenue-generator.
In fact, more Americans work in the retail industry than any other. Retail accounts for 24 percent of all the jobs in the United States, and while many of us are accustomed to associating Labor Day with labor unions, only 3 percent of retail employees are union members.
In this country, the percentage of workers belonging to a union in 2010 was 11.4 percent. That compares to 18.4 percent in Germany, 27.5 percent in Canada and a whopping 70 percent in Finland. In the private sector, union membership has fallen to a level (7 percent) not seen since 1932.
Union leaders blame employer-incited opposition for this decline in membership, but there’s also strong political opposition to unions, particularly among America’s Republicans, who view them as impediments to profitability in the private sector and cost-containment in the public sector.
One of the bigger political stories in the United States last year was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s well-financed — and successful — campaign to hobble his state’s unions, depriving them of the right to collective bargaining. Similar efforts have been mounted by conservatives in other states.
“Strong unions have helped to reduce inequality, whereas weaker unions have made it easier for CEOs, sometimes working with market forces that they have helped shape, to increase it,” the economist Joseph Stiglitz once declared. “The decline in unionization since World War II in the United States has been associated with a pronounced rise in income and wealth inequality.”
That managers usually prefer to work in a non-union environment is perfectly understandable, for negotiating with unions is a burdensome task. But that doesn’t eliminate injustices in the workplace. Right now, for example, fast-food workers throughout the United States have taken to the streets to demand an increase in their pay from the present $9 an hour to $15 an hour. In 1963, their pay ($2 an hour) was $13.39 in today’s currency.
Author Barbara Ehrenreich once wrote that society’s real philanthropists are the working poor who “neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for … live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect … endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high.”
To them, Labor Day must seem a hollow holiday.