Ah, Labor Day. The end of summer. The beginning of football season. Once upon a time it meant the opening of another school year, but hey, kids now have so many tests to take on behalf of the teachers and administrators whose jobs depend on the scores, classes now begin during what used to be summer vacation.
For the fashionable, Labor Day means your last chance to wear white, if you pay attention to that sort of thing.
But Labor Day is also supposed to celebrate the American working stiff.
These celebrations, marked by parades and a day off, were already being observed in 30 states when President Grover Cleveland declared a national holiday in 1894. This amounted to a peace offering following the violent Pullman Strike in which a number of workers were killed.
That strike, it’s worth mentioning, was triggered when industrialist George Pullman cut his workers’ wages in response to lagging sales of his namesake railroad cars. The trouble came because Pullman had turned his factory into a kind of little city, where if you worked for Pullman you also lived in a Pullman apartment. Funny thing: while the workers’ wages were cut, their rents remained the same.
The Pullman Strike was considered a failure in many ways, though a judge eventually determined that Pullman should quit being a landlord.
It also made a hero of Terre Haute’s Eugene Debs, the strike’s organizer. Debs did six months in prison and came out a highly quotable socialist, saying things like this: “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”
Today you’re a lot more likely to hear about the commercial virtues of a brand of bratwurst on Labor Day than the fighting words of Eugene Debs. That’s probably because we Americans are still hanging on to the notion that, whatever happens, change is progress and things are always getting better.
But what if things aren’t getting better? What if the changes we’re living through today are what economists call “structural?”
For example, while we continue to hear that college grads make more money in the job market than people with only a high school diploma, we’re also finding out that many of those college grads are making their money at high school level jobs. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that 44 percent of Americans ages 22 to 27 with a bachelor’s degree are now in jobs that didn’t used to require college. That’s up from 34 percent in 2001.
And studies by the US Department of Commerce, Congressional Budget Office and Internal Revenue Service, show that income distribution in the United States has become increasingly unequal since…the 1970s!
Eugene Debs may have more to say about Labor Day 2014 than any of us might have guessed.