For far too many Americans, Labor Day is simply another day off, another store sale and another small parade. The meaning of the holiday has been dulled by both rampant commercialism and public apathy. Where is the passion for elevating the wellbeing of American workers? Shouldn’t Labor Day be a time to gather, contemplate and celebrate more just treatment of all those who toil without proper recognition or compensation? Labor Day is the ideal time to highlight the hard-fought, historic victories already enjoyed by American workers, and push for long-overdue health and safety measures and increased economic benefits for those left behind by casino capitalism. After all, it was the labor movement in the early 20th century that brought us such advances as the minimum wage, overtime pay, the five-day work week, the banning of child labor and more.
The reality is that big corporations have abandoned American workers by taking jobs and industries to communist and fascist regimes abroad — regimes that oppress their workers and enforce serf-level salaries and hideous working conditions. America’s working men and women have also largely been abandoned by the corporate dominated Republican and Democrat two-party duopoly, whatever their rhetorical differences may be. The federal minimum wage has been allowed to languish far behind inflation as corporate bosses’ pay skyrockets. The gap between worker salaries and CEO pay widens, even as worker productivity rises. Corporate CEO’s in America make approximately 340 times more than that of the average worker. In 1980, by comparison, CEO pay was 42 times greater.
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Look to the fast food strikers around the country for inspiration. Backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), workers in cities across America are demanding fair pay at $15 an hour and the right to unionize. Beginning in New York City and spreading to other major cities, workers are beginning to rally and speak out against their poverty wages from hugely profitable fast food chains. Willietta Dukes, in a piece for The Guardian, writes:
Burger King says they can’t pay employees, like me, higher wages because it would force them out of business. Yet last year it made $117m[illion] in profits and its CEO took home $6.47m[illion]. It would take me 634 years to earn that much. I’ve worked in fast food for 15 years, and I can’t even afford my own rent payments. We just want fairness and to be able to provide for our families. No one who works every day should be forced to be homeless.
Where are the other advocates for American workers? Now is the time to speak out and push for long-overdue action. Where is President Obama? Candidate Obama promised that he would press for a $9.50 federal minimum wage by 2011. Now, in 2013, he has settled for $9 by 2015. This is far less than what workers made in 1968, adjusted for inflation. If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation, it would be $10.70 today. If it kept up with worker productivity in the corporate sector, it would be $22. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law in 1938 — which established the federal minimum wage amongst other things — it was in the face of considerable opposition and criticism from Big Business, not to mention in the midst of The Great Depression. This is the type of courageous leadership we need from the White House today. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal cited an analysis by Mark M. Gray, a researcher at Georgetown University, who found that President Obama “mentions the poor in his speeches less than any other president in decades” — even Ronald Reagan mentioned the poor in his speeches and public statements about twice as frequently. What of the AFL-CIO, which represents 13 million American workers? I recently wrote a letter to its president, Richard Trumka, asking for his leadership in pushing for more attention about the plight of workers on this Labor Day. No response. The AFL-CIO has an opportunity for a major showing with rallies before the White House and Congress. Some reporters in the mainstream press have indicated they do not think the push for a higher minimum wage is serious without Mr. Trumka, President Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid exerting serious efforts. What of former President Bill Clinton? In his speech to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Clinton made passing rhetorical reference to “building a modern economy of good jobs and rising incomes.” But the time for simply talking about these issues is long past. What about publicly supporting Rep. Alan Grayson’s bill in Congress (H.R. 1346) which provides for a $10.50 minimum wage to catch up with 1968, and allow $30 million workers to afford more of life’s necessities for themselves and their children? The support of Mr. Clinton might help galvanize the media and those in Congress to make this into the front burner issue it deserves to be. And, what about the leading Democratic Presidential candidates for 2016 — Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden? Why aren’t they seriously championing this important cause that is both good for the economy and for workers and their children? In an ideal world, the Sunday political shows the day before Labor Day would feature various prominent labor leaders and discuss key issues like the minimum wage, income equality, trade and more. Labor Day should be a moment for the nation to shine a light upon the rights and plights of the nation’s workers and recognize the need to reform restrictive labor laws, such as the notorious Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. After all, workers are the backbone of the economy. (See here for facts and information on our efforts to raise the minimum wage to catch up with 1968, inflation adjusted, and find out how to get involved.) Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.