“Each morning sees some task begin, Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, some done, Has earned a night’s repose.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Labor Day Today
As we head into the beloved Labor Day weekend and transition from summer to fall and another academic year, let’s pause and consider the ancient tensions between those who do the manual work that keeps society going and those who finance that work. Labor Day today is more about boats, beaches, and best sales than labor-management disputes. But Labor Day today is still a struggle over who will do the work and how much they get paid for it.
We are experiencing the lowest unemployment rate I can remember; somewhere around 3.5. “Help Wanted” signs are everywhere. I frequently see signs that read, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” This is usually followed by a plea to be patient with the staff as the place is short-staffed.
A Classic Apples and Oranges Dispute
And yet, it is virtually impossible to support even oneself on minimal wage income, which has not gone up significantly in decades. We’ve become very good at instantly taking sides on any issue that comes along. One of the current great divides is over the recently implemented policy to forgive sums of student loan debt. Shouting matches have erupted all over social and broadcast media between the “About time!” and “Thank you!” response versus the “Not Fair!” “I paid mine. You pay yours!” response.
A New York Times article this week by David Leonhardt runs the numbers. He graduated in 1994 with about $26,000 of student loan debt (in today’s dollars). Had the Biden debt-relief plan been available then, he would have qualified for it. He was abler to pay off his loan without the Biden plan. But that was then.
Today the combination of household income versus cost of living, combined with usury style interest on student loans, has made it extremely difficult to ever get out from under crushing debt. Young adults in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, have fewer economic resources than their peers of three decades ago did. It is fairly common to head of situations in which the borrower has paid back two and three times the original loan and still is not clear of the debt.
What is Fair?
What is fair? Is fair treating everyone the same without factoring in different circumstances for different people? Should fair be expecting a five-year-old to compete with a fifteen-year-old in a race? That is what we often do. We expect today’s standards to apply to lives lived centuries ago. Or we expect the economics of a century ago to apply to the reality of today’s economy. Is this even the right question to ask? Don’t want today’s just-starting-adult-life people to do well?
We once thought it was perfectly acceptable to send children barely out of diapers to work to do work that was detrimental to their health and safety. Up until the mid-1800s, we accepted that it was appropriate that some should be enslaved to work for the benefit of others.
On Labor Day today, few will remember the oppressive, dangerous, work conditions that led to protests demanding improvements for worker conditions. Prior to the reforms, a typical work day was twelve plus hours in hazardous work environments for low pay. Children were a regular part of the workforce.
Oppressive work conditions led to strikes and protests that eventually resulted in better hours and pay. Ten thousand workers took a day off without pay on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, to parade from City Hall to Union Square in New York City to pay tribute to American workers. That was the first, unofficial, Labor Day parade.
Social change rarely happens without a fight. Some of the ensuing rallies turned violent. In 1894 workers who built Pullman train cars in the Southside of Chicago went on strike when 4,000 workers had their wages reduced. Their strike, coupled with a massive boycott against trains, led to a national transportation crisis. The strike involved a quarter million workers in twenty-five states, with riots in many cities. President Grover Cleveland called out Army troops and twelve were killed in the riots. When the situation was finally resolved, President Cleveland urged Congress to designate the first Monday in September as a national holiday.
Tensions between employers and employees escalated in the Industrial Revolution. Employers wanted to maximin profits. Employees want to maximin wages. Factory owners realized children, who could be paid less than adults, could operate some of the new machines, thus increasing productivity while reducing costs. By the mid-1800’s child labor was a major problem. Children sometimes worked twelve to eighteen hours a day, six days a week, for a dollar ($31 today) a week.
The United States started outlawing child labor in the late 1800s. In 1918 and 1922, Congress passed laws banning or limiting child labor, but the Supreme Court declared those laws unconstitutional. Congress tried again in 1924, but the states failed to ratify it. In 1938 Congress finally passed a Fair Labor Standards Act that set the minimum work age at 16 during school hours, 14 for some after-school jobs, and 18 for work deemed dangerous.
It seems to me today’s debate about providing some debt-relief assistance is a continuum of ancient competing values. How can we make the most profit for some while keeping the compensation for others as low as possible? It is also a competition between individual rights and community obligations. Do we lean into the “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul?” philosophy penned by William Ernest Henley in Invictus? Or do we lean toward John Donne’s theory that “No man is an island?”
Do we go with the “I had to do it, you should too” attitude? Or might we go with the “I had to endure it but no one should have to go through that” approach? Competition or collaboration? As for me and my family, which includes six young adults with student loan debts, I would much prefer my tax dollars go to helping them retire them as quickly as possible than finance more war weapons.
Meanwhile, for Labor Day today, I’m thankful for people who do the work that keeps society going.
Some information for this blog comes from “Child Labor.” Reviewed by Milton Fried. The New Book of Knowledge. Grolier Online, 2014. Web. 04 June 2018.
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