As with other holidays, we’ll likely be told today and Monday to remember the “meaning” of Labor Day, and keep in mind the struggles that allow American workers to enjoy weekends, 40-hour workweeks, and a host of other perquisites and protections.
Yes, we should recall the sweat our forebears expended to assure that child labor and 80-hour workweeks would not become standard. And, yes, you should feel a sense of pride when someone proclaims that workers are “America’s backbone,” even if your job isn’t something that requires brawn, and even if you’re retired and haven’t punched a clock in years.
But, by all means, feel free to enjoy this last holiday of the summer. Fire up the grill, go to a game, or laze on the porch without a sense of guilt. Americans deserve a day off.
We’re frequently told that Americans are the hardest-working people in the world, and that’s not hollow puffery or chauvinistic chest-thumping. We work more than 130 hours longer per year than our counterparts in Japan, 260 more than our peers in Britain, and almost 500 more than the wage-earners of France. American workers are not guaranteed paid time off for illness, not guaranteed paid vacation and not guaranteed paid parental leave. Workers in the United States who do get paid vacation get less than workers in other developed nations, and it’s estimated that more than half of Americans who are employed don’t use all the paid time off to which they are entitled.
Clearly, we could use a break.
Then, there’s the reality that American prosperity is not being shared the way it once was. Despite low unemployment, wages have not been going up, and real wages have been stagnant since 1973, when Richard Nixon was in the White House and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was atop the charts. The Economic Policy Institute has found that the wealthiest 1% in the United States rakes in more than 25 times more than the 99% not in the ranks of the gilded. America’s prosperity is also not being shared by all parts of the country. Metropolitan areas with heavy concentrations of educated workers and cutting-edge tech industries are faring much better than rural areas, or regions of the country that were once home to smokestacks and factories. Not all the boats have been lifted in America’s rising tide over the last several decades.
It should be noted that women, despite the strides that have been made over the last half-century, are still not earning as much as men. For every dollar a man earns, a woman earns 82 cents for the same work. The way the Pew Research Center added it up, it would take a woman an additional 47 days to earn what a man does in any given year.
Let’s not forget, the minimum wage hasn’t budged in a decade.
We can only hope that Americans will elect officials in the months and years ahead that are serious about remedying these problems, rather than spouting empty rhetoric or looking for scapegoats.
There’s no doubt that American workers are getting a fairer shake than they did 100 years ago. But they could do even better.