The State of Labor on this Labor Day
The contributions the working class to American society were first officially and nationally recognized on the first Monday in September in 1894. This recognition did not come easily. In fact, the first unofficial celebrations of Labor Day were one-day protest strikes held on Mondays. The history of the labor movement in this country is a history of brutal working conditions, horrendous living conditions, no safety net, and a long road of persistence against resistance, often leading to violent confrontations.
The Industrial Revolution first came to North America in the colonial period, with the creation of textile factories in New England, and slowly increased from the 1700s through the mid-1800s. After the Civil War the Industrial Revolution accelerated in the United States. Conditions for factory workers were horrific, for two reasons. First, capitalism, despite what Adam Smith says, is not a moral economic system that equally benefits everyone. Capitalists are motivated by profit and personal wealth accumulation. Second, capitalists could ignore the needs of the workers because of massive numbers of poor immigrants coming into the United States, who were willing to work in horrific conditions without complaint.
However, by the 1890s labor agitators began to organize labor unions, based on the idea that an organized group was much stronger than a mass of unorganized individuals. Their underlying argument was this: no one, not the owners, not the churches, not the government, was going to help the workers- therefore they needed to be assertive and help themselves. The only way they could get the owners to treat them better was to deprive the owners of their labor, by going on strike.
The early labor movement foundered, because owners would simply switch to strike-breaking ‘scabs’ to do the work, or they would frequently convince the government to send in troops to break up the strikes. However, by the early 20th Century the federal government began to pass legislation favoring labor unions and reforming workplace conditions. After the Great Depression, thanks to workplace reforms, the strength of labor unions, and the robust American economy, the working class entered a 30-year Golden Era, from the early 40s to the early 70s. The percentage of working class individuals who attained middle class economic status reached its highest point during this period.
Since the 1970s the working class is finding it harder and harder to retain or attain middle class economic status, shrinking the size of the middle class. There are a number of reasons for this: shifting manufacturing jobs overseas, the subsequent shift from higher paying manufacturing jobs to lower paying service jobs, the marked decline in labor union membership, the increasing sophistication of many working class jobs, and the subsequent increasing use of artificial intelligence and robots.
Why should this decline be troubling to all of us? Because every functional democracy in the world has a sizable middle class. In fact it could be argued that democracy cannot exist without a sizable middle class. Obviously having a middle class does not guarantee democracy- look at China; but it is a necessary ingredient. Therefore any threat to the middle class is a potential threat to democracy.
One of the decline causes listed above is possibly more fixable than the others. Currently there is a mismatch between the job requirements for many working class jobs and the inadequate training of the applicants for those jobs. As a society we could invest more resources into education and training at the high school and community college levels, geared toward infrastructure (working class) jobs.
Getting society to make this investment requires an attitude shift on the part of those of us who are not members of the working class. We need to remember this: The working class is in charge of maintaining and upgrading all the infrastructure we use. They keep everything running. Without them, everything falls apart.