Labor Day in the New Gilded Age

United States Infantry square off against Chicago workers in the Stock Yards, by Fredric Remington, from Harper's Weekly Magazine

United States Infantry square off against Chicago workers in the Stock Yards, by Fredric Remington, from Harper’s Weekly Magazine

Well, its Labor Day 2013, a national holiday in both the U.S. and Canada bolstered by an idea — that the national economy thrives when we recognize workers’ contributions to creating an economic system based on broadly shared prosperity — that seems more and more hopelessly symbolic in the New Gilded Age. In the contemporary U.S., American income inequality has reached pre-Great Depression-era levels, private sector unionization is now a pale shadow of its former strength thanks to 30-plus years of concerted right wing ideological and policy assaults, and public sector unions seem destined for collapse for the very same reason.

So what is the status of labor in 2013? And does Labor Day still mean anything to most people other than serving as a nice three-day weekend for cook outs — if you’re lucky enough to get the day off, of course? Writing in the New York Times, the immortal Paul Krugman reminds us that Labor Day was born in a previous age when, like today, government and industry colluded to suppress the rights of workers:

Here’s how it happened: In 1894 Pullman workers, facing wage cuts in the wake of a financial crisis, went on strike — and Grover Cleveland deployed 12,000 soldiers to break the union. He succeeded, but using armed force to protect the interests of property was so blatant that even the Gilded Age was shocked. So Congress, in a lame attempt at appeasement, unanimously passed legislation symbolically honoring the nation’s workers.

Even more depressing for Krugman is that after decades of hard-won concessions from America’s industrial titans that made labor a major player in American economic and political policy, in 2013 the very idea of labor has been so devalued by the force of conservatism in America that the New Gilded Age may be harder to break than the previous one:

You might ask why we should provide any aid to working Americans — after all, they aren’t completely destitute. But the fact is that economic inequality has soared over the past few decades, and while a handful of people have stratospheric incomes, a far larger number of Americans find that no matter how hard they work, they can’t afford the basics of a middle-class existence — health insurance in particular, but even putting food on the table can be a problem. Saying that they can use some help shouldn’t make us think any less of them, and it certainly shouldn’t reduce the respect we grant to anyone who works hard and plays by the rules.

But obviously that’s not the way everyone sees it. In particular, there are evidently a lot of wealthy people in America who consider anyone who isn’t wealthy a loser — an attitude that has clearly gotten stronger as the gap between the 1 percent and everyone else has widened. And such people have a lot of friends in Washington.

As political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson incontrovertibly demonstrate in Winner-Take All Politics, their essential study of the creation of the New Gilded Age, the loss of working peoples’ place at the political table was not the inevitable, irreversible result of globalization and technological advancement — a claim consistently made by U.S. conservatives. Rather, the growth of an ultra-powerful one percent that controls most of the country’s wealth, despite their numerical minority status, is the result of a an intentional, concerted effort by businesses and right-wing organizations to destroy organized labor and, more importantly, to destroy and delegitimize the very idea of labor as a valuable contributor to the nation’s broader economic and social well-being.

History shows us, however, from the French Revolution to the growth of strikes in authoritarian China, that nations ruled by oligarchies always exist at the cusp of instability. Revolutions, whether in France, Mexico, China, Russia, and elsewhere are historically born out of vast discrepancies in income distribution. A national economy based on broad-based prosperity, in which the rich can be quite rich — but not as obscenely rich as today’s financial oligarchs — is an economy that is healthy and inoculated against revolution. On that note, Labor Day deserves to be more than just a day for cook outs. Americans could use a good-ole’-fashioned dose of workers’ rights not just for some, but for all.

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  1. People tend to think that it couldn’t happen here, but the tipping point for revolution is when a large majority of the middle class decides that they indentify more with the impoverished underclass instead of the wealthy. Once the middle class is at such a severe economic disadvantage that social mobility is impossible, then the police and Army (mostly manned by the middle class) usually decide that they no longer support and protect the ruling class, then you have an upheaval. We seem to be a long way from this, but with mismanagement of the economy through poor fiscal and monetary policy, it could happen. Cutting taxes on the rich while raising them on the middle class is a perfect example. Hopefully, smarter leaders will prevail and it will be avoided, because as we saw in the French Revolution, it can get quite ugly. I will alway believe that FDR saved us from this during the Great Depression.

  2. You make a good point there by highlighting that the tipping point needs to come from the middle class. Right now, I think we’re seeing the beginnings of that as unionization (or what’s left of it) is bending away from blue-collar jobs and into white-collar areas. And you’re basically right about FDR.

    Whenever someone tells you that conservatism and anti-union ideology is “natural,” remember that these ideas are the result of decades of persistent, targeted ideological propaganda. Multi-million dollar conservative think-tanks don’t exist because people are “naturally” conservative.

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