Labor Day has in many ways been divorced from its original purpose – to celebrate the hard-fought victories of workers, organized within unions, struggling to even the playing field between those who create wealth and those who accumulate it from the labor of others. Yes, there once was a time when, even in our ostensibly “classless” society, the reality of economic stratification was evident to anyone who wasn’t blinded by that shiny mirage of patriotic exceptionalism, the American Dream of upward mobility through hard work.
When there were jobs available in higher-paying occupations, it was, indeed, possible to get ahead. Many of those jobs were manufacturing jobs where unions had long been strongest. What has happened over the last few decades has been the decimation of America’s manufacturing base, and thus the near-decapitation of organized labor. The muscle of the working class – the factory worker – was replaced by machines and cheaper, non-unionized foreign workers. What jobs are left are service jobs, which traditionally have been lower paying, with few prospects of meaningful job advancement, dismal benefits (if any), and carrying with them a strong odor of Lower Class Disrespect.
Yet despite the decimation of high-wage manufacturing jobs and the abuses heaped upon the low-wage service worker, there hasn’t been a corresponding rise in union membership. This is partly due to the fact that the American laborer has swallowed the idea of individual responsibility for his/her economic situation – the belief in the myth of autonomous free agents negotiating work contracts with their employers on a more-or-less equal basis. This is the same mentality that brands anti-union states as “right to work” states – as much a load of hypocrisy as calling a Communist dictatorship a “people’s republic”. There’s no reason to expect this situation to change any time soon, as the entrenched powers-that-be like this particular arrangement, and the vast majority of people haven’t yet correctly identified the source of their current economic misery (there’s an entire cable “news” network devoted to providing such distractions from real issues. I shan’t name it directly, but it rhymes with “box”).
Recently the call has gone out for an increase in the minimum wage, and further, the concept of a living wage has gained some traction. The United States economy is increasingly one that depends on services, not manufacturing, and when the service worker becomes the new standard by which wages are measured, then a corresponding increase in those wages to match those of the former standard – that of the manufacturing worker – is not only appropriate, but absolutely necessary. And not only manufacturing jobs are going away. Professional positions have also been hard-hit in the wake of the Bush recession, and those jobs, too, are not coming back. As the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research group found,
Recent analyses suggest that half of the U.S. jobs lost during the Great Recession were middle-class jobs, but that only 2 percent of the jobs gained during the recovery pay middle-class wages. Instead, these disappearing middle-class jobs are being replaced by lower-wage positions with 70 percent of recovery jobs growth occurring in lower-wage industries.
Without radical economic policy changes, the trend of fewer available white collar and manufacturing jobs will continue, and, like it or not, the face of the modern American laborer is going to be a single woman with a child, a BA in English, and two part-time fast food restaurant jobs.
The middle class is disappearing in the United States partly because we have not changed our concept of what a middle class job is. When a growing percentage of our work force is employed in the service industries, it is those industries that must now become the new standard for middle class jobs – and that means their employees should earn a middle class salary.