September 3, 2007 The Pump Handle 0Comment

For those of us fortunate enough to have Labor Day off from work, it’s a good time to remember all the workers who can’t take a day off because we rely so heavily on them: hospital staff, police officers, bus drivers, power-company workers, and many others. Then, there are the retail and restaurant workers who clock in on federal holidays because their employers know that many of us will observe Labor Day by going shopping or out to eat.

We owe our current lifestyle not only to the workers who keep us supplied with food, electricity, transportation, healthcare, and other necessities, but to the individual workers and labor unions of the past who fought so hard for eight-hour workdays, safe workplaces, and other benefits that it’s easy to take for granted.

If you’ve got some free time and internet access today, I recommend these four Labor Day readings: At Firedoglake, Tula Connell reminds us of Labor Day’s union roots. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Peter Dreier notes that unions helped provide us with the economic security to take a three-day weekend, but U.S. workers still have a lot of organizing to do to bring our economic and social wellbeing up to that of our counterparts in other affluent nations. In the LA Times, Duke Helfand and Molly Selvin report that a lack of health benefits and spiraling health care costs are among many full-time workers’ top concerns. For Marketplace, Robert Reich traces the declining public awareness of organized labor over the past few decades and explains why we’re all to blame for it:

There’s no question that ever since the 1980s and with ever greater alacrity, companies have fired workers for trying to form unions, even though that’s illegal, and have used or threatened to use permanent replacements if workers go on strike, which is legal but was rare back then.

But don’t blame Ronald Reagan or corporate greed. Blame us, you and me. You see, starting about 30 years ago and with increasing efficiency, technologies have given us consumers a world of choice: low-priced goods and services that often depend on low wages here and elsewhere.

Long-haul trucks linking non-unionized manufacturers in the South to the rest of us. Big-box retailers using computers to find the best deals anywhere around the world. And now the Internet letting us find the best deals for ourselves, too.

So now, a lot of us get good consumer deals and lousy paychecks. No one trumpeted this choice. It’s happened gradually. But is it the right choice? That’s what we ought to be asking ourselves, at least once a year, on Labor Day.

Today, think about the workers involved in supplying all the goods and services you’re using – from the electricity powering your home or workplace to the food on your table and the clothes you’re wearing. Are their wages and benefits sufficient? Are their workplaces safe and healthy? If not, what can we do to change things?

Feel free to leave your own suggested Labor Day readings or actions in the comments section.

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