Today is the 127th Labor Day, one of several culturally and nationally recognized secular observances in the United States. A day to celebrate the contributions of workers to our national history and prosperity was one of many gains hard-won by a burgeoning movement of organized labor that rapidly spread nationwide during the Reconstruction Era. The movement has taken a variety of forms and persists to this day, though it is probably best recognized in the form of unions, during a period that included the Golden Age of Freethought.
The history of the labor movement in the United States was punctuated by periods of success and of failure, and the federal recognition of Labor Day marked one such period. As PBS tells the story, the sleeping car manufacturers of the company-run planned workers community of Pullman, Illinois, had been hard-hit by the nationwide depression of 1893. While the town had seen decades of booming sales of Pullman sleeping railway cars, as demand shrank so did the workers’ wages, though their rent in Pullman (fixed by the company) stayed flat. Out of their desperation, the famous Pullman Strike began, assisted by the American Railway Union and coupled with a nationwide boycott of Pullman cars. The boycott turned violent in several cities, and the strike was ultimately put down by U.S. troops.
The Pullman saga featured some prominent names in freethought, including a pre-socialist Eugene V. Debs at the helm of the ARU and renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow, of later Scopes Monkey Trial fame, on Debs’s defense team. (Debs’s prison sentence introduced him to the writings of Karl Marx.) The strike led to a federal investigation into the management of Pullman, which eventually led to a court-decreed divorce of the company from the town. In an effort to appease a dissatisfied work force, and to secure his reelection, President Grover Cleveland wasted no time in signing a bill that recognized a national day in observance of labor.
The 1893 Labor Day Annual describes the purpose of the observance:
It was the intention of those who introduced the first Labor Day resolution to make the day stand apart from all other holidays in the nature of its observance. While parades, picnics, festivals and games, were permissible, the principle feature of the exercises was to consist of lectures and discourses upon topics relating to the welfare of the industrial masses. Every question of political, social and economic importance should be discussed at the meetings on Labor Day.
In that spirit, let’s talk about the campaign that has taken the spotlight this Labor Day: Thursday’s strike by fast food workers demanding a $15/hr living wage.
It helps to have a larger context. The current minimum wage, set in 2009, is $7.25/hr. Adjusting for inflation, this is about the highest it’s been since the 1970s. However, as the minimum drops, the proportion of workers making it also drops, as more workers are paid higher wages as employers can more freely afford. Many states have adopted higher minimum wages, and many cities have adopted living wage laws. (While living wage depends on location and household, living wage laws tend to be strict lower limits.)
Rather than legislation, the striking workers of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and other fast-food chains are currently demanding higher wages directly from their employer. The $15 figure is more than twice the minimum, and more than half again the current median wage for front-line fast food workers, but (for example) just barely the living wage for single adults in the District of Columbia.
The classical dilemma posed by the minimum wage (and where to set it) is a trade-off between higher wages and higher employment: To pay their workers more, employers must hire fewer of them. There are several twists to this basic story—whether to legislate maximum wage ratios, for instance, or for governments to step in as employers of last resort—but the national conversation always seems to come back to the minimum wage. Since i’m far from qualified on this front, i wonder what you think! Where is the trade-off best set, if it even exists at all? And what evidence do we have to go on in the first place?
Meanwhile, striking fast food workers have amassed a sizable force, which reflects a resentment with their conditions that has been understandably growing in recent years. They raise one of many “questions of political, social and economic importance”. As fellow persons and citizens, let us take this day, their day as well as some of ours, to hear them out.
Meet the Labor Coalition at Virginia Tech
From 1:30 to 5:00 today, the Labor Coalition at Virginia Tech, the VT chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops, will be staffing an information table in Squires next to Au Bon Pain. Stop in if you’re nearby and see what they’re up to!