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Woes mark this Labor Day
It is Labor Day, a time to celebrate the working man and working woman. We remind ourselves how middle-class and working-class people throughout the United States owe much to the 20th century union movement.
For example, who can we thank for that greatest of workplace innovations: the two-day weekend? The answer: a diverse group of organized workers. In the early 1900s, American labor unions waged strikes for a 40-hour workweek. Meanwhile, Jewish-immigrant factory workers were making it clear that their Sabbath, Saturday, should be a day off, just like Sunday was for Christians. The result: a New England factory became the first to adopt a two-day weekend in 1908. And the rest is history.
But reasons to celebrate Labor Day in 2012 are difficult to find. After what may prove to have been the height of their public esteem, after hundreds of public sector union members gave up their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, they are now used as scapegoats for a national economic crisis.
Despite allegations of their excessive compensation packages, studies of comparable public and private positions show negligible differences in pay and benefits. The problem is not that public employees are compensated too generously across the country, but rather that private sector workers are suffering from decades of income and benefits stagnation.
There is room for outrage here, but it should be directed at the relentless assault on the middle class within America's private sector, accelerated by the 2008 economic crisis and the breakdown in family wealth it caused.
Numerous examples of workers' woes exist. For example, organized labor, which has always championed a living wage, asks who can live on $2.13 per hour? No one, of course. But $2.13 has been the national minimum wage for tipped workers since 1991. That's more than 20 years ago. With women making up 70 percent of the restaurant workforce, these wages are in effect a legalized form of gender pay inequity.
Here in Yuma County, 31 percent of the population is unemployed, while debates swirl over deficits and budgets in an election year.
One can understand how low and moderate-income Americans would benefit by Congress extending the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). They have historically had bipartisan support, but are now being dramatically reduced. All the while, tax cuts for the wealthy are further expanded and the amount of money the richest can keep from their estate taxes continues to grow.
Does it get any worse than this? To roll back tax credits for the poor to help fund tax breaks for the rich is morally reprehensible.
Is it all gloom and doom? Where is the good news to be found as we end our summer and get back to school and the fall schedules? While there is talk about selfishness as a virtue, extensive surveys show that Americans remain generous and community-oriented.
A significant majority of citizens supports most of the key elements of health care reform when presented to them piecemeal, as opposed to being presented as “Obamacare,” believes the very rich should pay more in taxes and supports safety net programs such as Social Security. These are not the beliefs of a selfish nation. What then is the problem?
The problem is that economic inequality (the ratio of CEO annual compensation to that of the typical worker in 2010 was 243 to 1) interacts with a money-driven political system giving excessive power to the most affluent.
The solution is to have more of the working class and the unemployed represented in political decision-making. I recommend that each party reserve 10 to 30 percent of its candidacies for minimum wage workers and the unemployed. That would bring the low-paids share of seats into rough line with their place in the workforce.
This would lessen Big Money influence in Washington, weaken partisan gridlock and stop politics from shaping the market that advantages the top at the expense of the rest. In other words, allow for a free market.
Kevin Mann is a Yuma resident who writes annually about the importance of Labor Day.