By President Sean McGarvey
North America’s Building Trades Unions
Like many national holidays, Labor Day continues to suffer from neglect. Just as Memorial Day, has now suffered the misfortune of being reduced to merely signaling the start of summer, now Labor Day has become its seasonal bookend: Another empty three-day weekend, and an excuse for Back to School sales or a final summer barbecue. This loss of meaning, especially among our governing elite, represents a missed opportunity to re-energize our nation and reinforce the promise of America.
Granted, every working man and woman deserves a day off to relax, but in today’s economic and labor climate, Labor Day should be one of the most meaningful holidays of the year. American workers have suffered disproportionately over the course of the financial and economic crises that have wreaked havoc for the past six years. As a result, social and economic commentators everywhere are lamenting the death of the middle class and the end of the American Dream.
This year, rather than offering up the usual homage to labor leaders of past eras upon whose legacies we sit, I wish to instead offer up a broader appeal on behalf of America’s working class, of which it can be accurately said that they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
On this Labor Day 2013, my appeal is for America’s governing elites to put aside their selfish and counterproductive political pursuits and get back to the notion of “putting country first.”
As noted above, six years after the onslaught of an unimaginable global economic disaster, America is still mired in economic uncertainty; high levels of unemployment; wage stagnation and unsustainable income inequality; and a dearth of any interest in getting our economy back on track.
The bottom 60% of working Americans are earning less now than they did 13 years ago. In fact, right now the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line has increased from 12.3 percent in 2006 to roughly 14 percent in 2013. To put that in numbers, today in America 35 million of our neighbors and fellow citizens are living below the poverty line.
Now, this naturally begs the overriding question that should be repeatedly asked of America’s governing elites; which is: How in the world is America supposed to prosper and thrive as a global economic leader if Middle Class America continue to get hammered and pushed into poverty in ever greater numbers?
The construction industry as a prime example.
It never ceases to amaze me that the most vociferous voices in the US Congress advocating for the repeal of federal Davis-Bacon Act prevailing wage requirements actually live in areas where the published prevailing wages for skilled craft workers are already at poverty levels. A couple of years ago, for example, Republican Senator Jim DeMint from South Carolina authored an amendment that would have prevented the application of the Davis-Bacon Act on any projects funded under the American Recovery and Re-Investment Act (aka “the stimulus” bill).
When we examined the prevailing wages in Greenville and Richland Counties in South Carolina, we were appalled at what we discovered. The wages for a carpenter were $7.96 and $7.23 an hour, respectively. An electrician in Greenville County could be expected to make $8.71 an hour, while a welder in Richland County could rely on a measly $7.63 an hour to feed his or her family. For elites like Jim DeMint, those wages are just too damn high! Does anyone really believe for a minute that Senator DeMint would risk the lives of his family, or the value of his property, with an $8 an hour electrician? Of course not. So we can only conclude that his machinations against the Davis-Bacon Act are wrapped up in nothing more than empty rhetoric designed solely to appease his conservative political supporters.
The point I am trying to make here is that we, as a nation, need to reverse the disturbing mindset that is taking root within the governing elite, many of whom reside in the top 1% in terms of wealth. Put simply, it’s a mentality that says, “I’ve got mine…screw everyone else.”
That is not a worldview that will ensure any sort of long-term economic success for our great nation.
Like the vast majority of Americans, I am disturbed by the fact that America’s governing elite no longer seems committed to putting country first. Not the President, not the Congress, not the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party, not the media, and not even groups like the Tea Party Movement.
Because to my mind’s eye, if any one of those particular individuals or entities maintained any sort of allegiance to putting country first, then they would, in my opinion, be first in line to attach their name to a concerted effort to repair and re-build our nation’s infrastructure. Because there is no other single endeavor that would have a greater impact on both our overall economic health and our employment picture – now and well into the future.
Yet, days, weeks and months go by with hardly a whisper about this issue from the White House, the Congress, either political party, or the tri-corner hat contingent.
I support President Obama. But, I also think he and his Administration need a healthy reminder about how he got elected in 2008. It was not because of his positions on healthcare reform, gay marriage, immigration, or race equality (each of which is an important issue, to be sure). No, Barack Obama was elected in 2008 for one simple reason: the financial crisis hit and the economy went over a cliff.
To my way of thinking, it should have been his priority, and it should continue to be his priority (as well as that of the U.S. Congress) to fix a broken Wall Street culture and resurrect the American economy so that it works for the vast majority of Americans who reside in the Middle.
Which brings me to the Tea Party.
I firmly believed that the Tea Party uprising was the fermentation of the anger that possessed millions of middle Americans who saw their retirement accounts, their homes and their jobs vanish because of the hubris exhibited by Wall Street banks. At the outset, I perceived that the Tea Party activists were hurting and angry over the fact that our governing elites were bailing out Wall Street, while doing little to nothing about creating a substantive and sustained economic recovery, which would include the implementation of a comprehensive infrastructure investment program.
Frankly, I am dismayed that today most of what we hear from the Tea Party entails discussion and outrage over issues like gun control, voter ID laws, Edward Snowden, NSA surveillance, Benghazi, and the IRS “scandal,” yet nary any substantive discussions involving the need for programs that will create good paying jobs and ensure economic recovery.
The question needs to be asked: What, exactly, has the Tea Party movement accomplished? From what I can tell, it has only succeeded in being overrun with wannabe “kingmakers” whose primary mission has been to spread nonsense among poor, under-educated conservatives, such as the 1/3 of all registered Louisiana GOP voters who indicated in a recent survey that they believe Barack Obama was responsible for the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina…in 2005!!!
So, here we are on Labor Day 2013 and we find ourselves on the doorstep of another trillion dollar military adventure in the Middle East, while our governing elites simultaneously dismantle our public educational system; erode the ability of our first responders to protect us; continue their efforts to remove any trace of unions in America; ignore the pressing needs of our national infrastructure; and turn their backs as our economy and the quality of life for millions and millions of Middle Class working Americans continues to deteriorate.
The poet Archibald MacLeish used to say that the essence of America – in fact, the greatness of America – was in its promises. But today, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert observed in 2011, “When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the Earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely.”
Labor Day commemorates one of the great ethical victories of American society, and not one in a hundred Americans know it. Sure, Labor Day marks the end of summer, and a time for retail store sales, and the last chance to get away to the beach or to the lake. But, few of us think about the real meaning of the word “labor” in the name, and how it is meant to honor the men and women who, despite the best efforts on the part of the forces of greed, political influence, wealth and privilege, continue to seek only a small measure of safety, consideration, fairness and justice.
I wish you a blessed Labor Day weekend. May you enjoy the time with family and friends, but also take the time to remember that Labor Day – especially Labor Day 2013 – is a time to both honor the economic and social achievements and contributions of American workers to the strength, well-being and prosperity of our great nation, but to also dedicate ourselves towards ensuring that our governing elites reinstate a firm commitment to putting “country first.”
For if we cannot endeavor to come together to do that on Labor Day, when will we?