Labor Movement:  Need a Plan to Move Forward and not Backwards

ACCORDING TO LIZ - Labor sounds awfully intense in this Trumpian era of self-indulgence. Do people really want to celebrate work? 

Many countries observe International Workers Day on May 1st with parades, a practice that grew out of the worldwide labor protests of the post Industrial Age. 

American union leaders started calling for a holiday to recognize the laboring classes in the early 1880s, and Labor Day was made an official federal holiday in 1894. 

Initially it was an end-of-summer opportunity for workers and their families to picnic and listen to union leaders. 

At a time that American corporations have made holidays into celebrations of consumerism with sales galore, Labor Day still stands alone as a time for families, be it a day of rest or the closing down of summer homes and the return to school. 

But it is also a time to contemplate how far the labor movement has come, its failures and more recent successes, and to look to the future. 

To address the fact that the same American corporations that solicit our money on other holidays keep a low profile today since it is they who have off-shored supply chains, moving manufacturing to China and India where labor was cheaper, gutting American towns, families, and institutions. 

Ro Khanna, in his book Dignity in a Digital Age points out that we are living in the Digital Age with parallels to the destabilization that arose after the Industrial Revolution. Can we rise to the occasion and learn from their mistakes? 

Most people today define themselves by what they do, and how they contribute to society. 

We identify ourselves by our jobs – as a doctor or lawyer or sanitation engineer, as a mom or student or clerk. 

Boss or gofer, we are one tribe, a team with shared goals and experiences. They are a support system who can better understand the day to day pressures more than even our own families. 

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century meant machines could do the jobs of hundreds of men, faster and better. Thousands left the land displaced by machines, farmers moving to the cities looking for factory work where fewer and fewer people were needed to operate machinery. 

In England, workers could no longer support their families which led to abject poverty, families torn apart, health crises from overcrowded urban living, anger, alcoholism and increasing crime. 

Abraham Lincoln saw what was occurring in Europe and acted to prepare working-class families here to adapt to the changes by initiating the land grant universities for widespread public education that paved the way for the United States to emerge as the dominant 20th century economy. 

As a society, we look down at people who are on unemployment, who can’t keep a job, who are on welfare as if it is their fault. That further demoralizes them, making it more difficult to find work in tough job markets. 

And tough means location-specific as it’s really hard to uproot children from school, a spouse from his or her job, to look for work elsewhere. It’s even harder to leave them behind along with abandoning friends and family. 

When a whole industry goes down – when coal is displaced by green energy or a mine is tapped out – it’s not just the one company – it’s the whole support system within the community – the stores that furnish their headquarters, the technicians who maintain the office equipment, the caterers for the company picnic, the grocery stores that provide for the workers, the schools and churches. 

Is the solution to abandon the area? Or innovate a new nexus that will tap into the existing system and allow people to find new and better jobs, pride in community, a future for their children. 

Three score and 18 years ago Franklin Roosevelt, in his final State of the Union address, called for an economic Bill of Rights. One that would give all Americans, regardless of race, creed or station: 

  • The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
  • The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
  • The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
  • The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
  • The right of every family to a decent home;
  • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
  • The right to a good education. 

Is this so wrong? 

Americans today want to work; they want to feel they are contributing to society, taking care of themselves and their families. They want to have value. 

So how can we help them get there? 

Instead of kicking back with a beer, this Labor Day spend some time cogitating about possible solutions that our digital age has thrown at the working class that supports our great nation. 

We need a plan for a new America that plays to people’s strength whether outdoors and physical, interacting with others through sales and consumer support, or engaging in intellectual or technical pursuits. 

It should curtail incentives to outsource lower-paying jobs to cheaper locations, and encourage diversification so communities can attract investment and an integrated consumer base needing quality schools and hospitals, shopping centers, personal trainers, bookstores, theatres, construction and renovation, hairstylists, cleaners, restaurants… everything to support a vibrant and engaged workforce. 

Unions are needed in exploitive industries such as Amazon, fast food, chip manufacturing, teaching and nursing, but also in non-traditional areas including tech support, remote workers, gig workers, crafts people, farmers, etc. so these people have advocates for the value of their work. 

If you don’t agree with my suggestions, come up with some of your own. It may take effort to get them out there but, remember, this is Labor Day.


(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)