Labor Day became a national holiday just days after the bloody Pullman railway strike of 1894. It was an era when workers were fighting pitched battles for the right to unionize for better pay and working conditions, like an eight-hour day.
They won those battles, though it took as long as the New Deal to cement them, and that laid the groundwork for the widest prosperity Americans ever saw, in the 1950s and ’60s.
But the labor movement came under serious attack in the 1980s, the tone set by President Ronald Reagan’s firing of unionized air traffic controllers. Today, union labor — 35 percent of the U.S. workforce in the 1950s and 60s — is a limp 11 percent. At the same time, by no small coincidence, corporate power has increased.
As we mark this Labor Day, the stock market is soaring, unemployment is down and consumer confidence is up. But wage growth has been feeble — just 0.1 percent last month, only 2.5 percent over the last 12 months. The crucial middle class is shrinking.
Unlike decades past, surveys show that today’s young people no longer believe they will live better than than their parents have. And their skepticism is merited. Ninety-five percent of children born in 1940 grew up to earn more than their parents did, but only 50 percent of those born in 1985 have enjoyed that upward mobility, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project.
What happens to the idea of America when that optimism disappears?
Gov. Rick Scott has made job growth the overriding goal of his administration, making the constant boast that under his administration Florida has gained 1.4 million jobs. But how many of those jobs pay enough to sustain a middle-class lifestyle? To the contrary, Scott has trumpeted the state’s low pay, citing it as an inducement for companies to relocate here.
The governor is certainly correct as to the skimpiness of paychecks. Weekly wages in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, the state’s highest-paying counties, are $50 below the national norm; in May 2015, at least 109,000 of Palm Beach County’s 565,000 workers were making less than $10 an hour.
The contraction of America’s economic promise was a potent theme both of Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ otherwise very different campaigns for president in 2016. It is a major issue for the three Democratic candidates for Florida governor in 2018. Appearing together at a forum Monday in West Palm Beach, all said they wanted to raise the state’s minimum wage, now $8.10 an hour.
“When I hear the governor talk about ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs,’ that says to me you’re going to have to work three jobs just to get by,” said one of the hopefuls, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham.
Meantime, as the middle class declines, incomes at the very top of the ladder skyrocket. In 1980, the top 1 percent of adults earned on average 27 times more than the bottom 50 percent adults. Today, they earn 81 times more, according to economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saetz and Gabriel Zucman.
The gap is especially wide in Florida, fifth among all states in income inequality: the state’s top 1 percent of wage earners make $1.27 million a year on average. That’s nearly 35 times more than the remaining 99 percent, who earn an average $36,500, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
The divide is starker still in Palm Beach County. Here, the top 1 percent earn $2.8 million on average; the remaining 99 percent earn $44,580, a ratio of 62 to 1.
We’ve moved back to the inequalities of the Gilded Age that the 19th century labor movement was committed to ameliorating.
And the reasons are deeper than the familiar punching bags of “bad trade deals” or influxes of low-wage immigrants.
What we need is a political movement that, like that labor movement of old, strives to give hardworking Americans a better shot at financial security. Policies that make health care and higher education accessible to all. A tax code that isn’t so intent on favoring the very affluent. A return to collective bargaining. Policies that encourage companies not to hoard their profits or use them to reward top executives at emperor-like scale.
It’s time that middle-class, laboring Americans get a long-overdue raise.
What we need is a political movement that, like that labor movement of old, strives to give hardworking Americans a better shot at financial security.