Monday, September 6, 2010

What's Left? Squeezing the Workers Out of Labor Day

Leave it to the increasingly irrelevant New York Times. I am not sure which is more impressive:  the ability to produce a strikingly vapid and incoherent editorial that will be acclaimed as profound wisdom, or simply to pack such an amazing amount of stupidity and insensitivity into such a small space.

In "Labor Day, Now and Then," the Olympian and anonymous editors gravely and avuncularly explain that a lot has changed since the origins of the holiday in 1882.  The words of AFL founder Peter McGuire, about honoring those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold" ring hollow:
There is not so much delving and carving these days, and nature doesn’t seem quite as rude as it once did. Labor Day has expanded well beyond the realms of organized labor, and what was once a “workingmen’s” holiday is now a respite for nearly everyone with a Monday job.
So: nature is tamed (read: frontier closed, and we mourn an environment exploited and despoiled), workers don't labor at anything too strenuous (read: we have deindustrialized but have not yet come to terms with the social inequities of the new service and information economy), and we all work at regimented jobs and are burnt out (read: Marxists actually did predict the proletarianization of the work force: almost no one is any longer an independent producer, and alienation reigns).

No mention of social problems. No mention of unemployment. No discussion of why union membership is declining and hostility to organized labor is growing.  No mention of quality of life issues. For that, you'd need to turn elsewhere altogether, for example, to Thomas Geoghan's Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life:
European social democracy – particularly Germany’s – offers some tantalizing solutions to our overworked age. In comparison to the U.S., the Germans live in a socialist idyll. They have six weeks of federally mandated vacation, free university tuition, nursing care, and childcare.
(The issues surrounding productivity are complex, but the basic contrast in benefits and quality of life is striking.) But no, the Times intones:
That is perhaps quite enough to think about on this Labor Day, this line in the beach sand between summer and whatever comes after summer but before true autumn. If Labor Day feels like a comma in the year and not a semicolon — like Thanksgiving or Christmas — it’s probably all to the good. We need a holiday that needs no preparation, which is a true holiday indeed.
Thanksgiving and Christmas involve complex meals and preparation. Hey, this is a barbecue holiday—cool.  The message: Don't worry, be happy. Let's eat (as long as we don't have to spend too much time cooking). Uplifting indeed.

Over on the other side of the sheet, where the signed pieces appear, things are better (is that what they mean by plausible deniability?).  Nobel laureate and economist Paul Krugman, pounding out a theme he has been drumming for some time, warned against repeating the mistakes of the Great Depression:  the economy remains sluggish not because the stimulus package was too big and ineffectual but because it was too small. In 1937, he reminds us, President Roosevelt disastrously heeded public opinion and the advice of narrow-minded policymakers and "pulled back fiscal stimulus too soon." The economy stalled—and his party lost seats.  Only World War II saved us, because it in effect forced the federal government to borrow "an amount equal to roughly twice the value of G.D.P. in 1940 — the equivalent of roughly $30 trillion today":
Had anyone proposed spending even a fraction that much before the war, people would have said the same things they’re saying today. They would have warned about crushing debt and runaway inflation. They would also have said, rightly, that the Depression was in large part caused by excess debt — and then have declared that it was impossible to fix this problem by issuing even more debt.

But guess what? Deficit spending created an economic boom — and the boom laid the foundation for long-run prosperity. Overall debt in the economy — public plus private — actually fell as a percentage of G.D.P., thanks to economic growth and, yes, some inflation, which reduced the real value of outstanding debts. And after the war, thanks to the improved financial position of the private sector, the economy was able to thrive without continuing deficits.

The economic moral is clear: when the economy is deeply depressed, the usual rules don’t apply. Austerity is self-defeating: when everyone tries to pay down debt at the same time, the result is depression and deflation, and debt problems grow even worse. And conversely, it is possible — indeed, necessary — for the nation as a whole to spend its way out of debt: a temporary surge of deficit spending, on a sufficient scale, can cure problems brought on by past excesses.
The challenge, in other words, is more political than economic.

And in "That '70s Feeling," Jefferson Cowie, a professor of labor history at Cornell (see his new book, and the summary from Salon, below), takes up the cudgels to argue for paying serious attention to the effects of labor policy on the ground. In a sort of political economy mashup, he refers to the recent meltdown of Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater and notes:
The press immediately drew parallels between Mr. Slater’s outburst and two iconic moments of 1970s popular culture: Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” rant from the 1976 film “Network” and Johnny Paycheck’s 1977 anthem of alienation, “Take This Job and Shove It.”
The '70s, he said, began on a note of militancy.  However, "Most workers" (cf. the piece on German labor, cited above) "weren't angry over wages, though, but rather the quality of their jobs."  Even then, the other two icons of cultural protest, like Slater's fit, were psychological gestures rather than political actions.  Today, wages have stagnated, and no one seems to care about either pay or labor conditions.

And, precisely because (as the Times observes, while totally missing the point) labor issues are no longer about a proletarian class and wage labor in the classic sense, we should take them seriously:
The overt class conflict of the late ’70s ended a while ago. Workers have learned to internalize and mask powerlessness, but the internal frustration and struggle remain. Any questions about quality of work life, the animating issue of 1970s unrest, have long since disappeared — despite the flat-lining of wages in the decades since. Today the concerns of the working class have less space in our civic imagination than at any time since the Industrial Revolution.

Occasionally a rebel shatters the silence. Like Steven Slater, though, they get more publicity than political traction. Many things about America have changed since the late ’70s, but the soundtrack of working-class life, sadly, remains the same.
What's left?  Not much.  Three very different but sad comments on our state of affairs this Labor Day.

I have written earlier about the contingencies and tragedies that led America to celebrate the worker on a day other than the one dedicated to that purpose almost everywhere else in the world. That said, there is something appealing about the sequence of warm-weather holidays on which we mark our historical experience and fly the flag. Other countries would have known how to exploit this rhythm symbolically and practically.

"Commas" and "semicolons"? Why think small, on the level of the sentence, as the Times does? Why not bookends? Our cultural if not geophysical summer is bounded by tributes to those who forged, built, and defended the country:  Memorial Day at one end and Labor Day at the other (with July 4th in between).  Imagine the potential if we took those two holidays—which in effect fall outside our school year—as opportunities for a different sort of education and inculcation of civic spirit as we enjoy the pleasures of freedom and security, nature and community, and the respite from work. 

Talk about lost opportunities. In more than one sense.
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