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September 5, 2015

Why Labor Day Matters

Ralph Nader

Here’s an experiment to try this holiday weekend. Quiz your friends, family and
acquaintances on the meaning of Labor Day. You might be surprised by the answers
you hear. To many, the true meaning of Labor Day has been unfortunately lost―it’s
merely a three-day vacation weekend, unless you work in retail, in which case it is,
ironically, a day of work and “special” sales.

Commercialists have transformed Labor Day into a reason for shopping. The fact that
Labor Day was conceived as an occasion dedicated to America’s workers and what
they have endured is sadly under-acknowledged and unappreciated. (In many other
countries, the event is known as “International Workers’ Day” and is celebrated on
May 1st.)

Labor Day is a time to celebrate America’s tradespeople―the plumbers, electricians,
carpenters, painters, tailors, retail clerks and home health assistants. Celebrate the
meat and poultry inspectors, building code inspectors, OSHA and Customs
inspectors, sanitation inspectors of supermarkets and restaurants, nuclear, chemical
and aircraft inspectors, inspectors of laboratories, hospitals and clinics. Celebrate the
bus drivers, miners, and nurses. Celebrate the janitors who often thanklessly clean
our office buildings, schools, airports, and more. The list goes on.

In addition, Labor Day should be used to reflect on the historic victories of American
workers such as establishing the minimum wage and overtime pay, the five-day work
week and banning of the use of child labor. Many in the U.S. would find it difficult to
imagine living in a country where these things weren’t a given.

Labor Day is also a time to promote the future of labor and push our elected officials
on the critical needs of workers, such as improved health and safety measures and
increased economic benefits for tens of millions in need. It is a time to discuss
repealing The Taft Hartley Act of 1947―one of the great blows to American
democracy―which makes it exceptionally difficult for employees to organize unions.
Taft-Hartley impeded employees’ right to join together in labor unions, undermined
the power of unions to represent workers’ interests effectively, and authorized many
anti-union activities by employers. Unions should no longer concede this usurpation of
worker rights. Workers should use Labor Day as a yearly opportunity to push the
repeal of Taft-Hartley.

Labor Day is a time to acknowledge how big U.S. corporations have shown a lack of
patriotism by abandoning American workers and shipping jobs to communist and
fascist regimes abroad. These countries often pay serf-level salaries and abuse their
workers with dangerous working conditions―these are the conditions that the labor
movement in the United States fought against and made substantial gains.
Perhaps the best example of how apathy has affected the hard fought victories of the
labor movement is how the federal minimum wage has languished. The gap between
worker and CEO compensation ever widens, even as worker productivity rises.
According to the Economic Policy Institute: “The CEO-to-worker compensation ratio
was 20-to-1 in 1965 and 29.9-to-1 in 1978, grew to 122.6-to-1 in 1995, peaked at
383.4-to-1 in 2000, and was 295.9-to-1 in 2013…”

Since 1968, the minimum wage has lost over one-third of its purchasing power. If it
had kept up with inflation, it would be $10.93 an hour today. Raising the minimum
wage to $15 would give a pay raise to over fifty-one million Americans.

Where are the presidential candidates on this vital matter? Democrats Martin O’Malley
and Bernie Sanders have come out in favor of a $15 minimum wage, with Sanders
introducing the Pay Workers a Living Wage Act last July, which would raise the wage
to $15 an hour by 2020. Hillary Clinton belatedly supports raising the minimum wage
to $12 an hour and gave a tepid endorsement to fast food workers fighting for $15.
On the Republican side, only Rick Santorum, Ben Carson and John Kasich have
come out in favor of raising the minimum wage, but none favor raising it to a livable

What many fail to understand is that the minimum wage has served as a way to
improve the lives of many and their families. A 2013 study by the Center for American
Progress showed that even raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would
reduce the number of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enrollees
by 6 percent, saving taxpayers $46 billion over the next decade.
Where is the passion for elevating the wellbeing of American workers? Where are the
advocates for American workers? Advocates and prominent labor leaders should be
front and center on the Sunday political shows just before Labor Day discussing
matters like the minimum wage, income equality, job safety, pull-down trade treaties
and more. Labor unions such as the AFL-CIO should host events around the country
to highlight worker issues like the oppressive Taft-Hartley Act and boost the morale of
hard-working people who are unrecognized and hastily slipping behind in a casino
capitalism culture.

Labor Day is the time to speak out, march in Labor Day parades, and push for long-
overdue action. It’s a moment for the nation to shine a light upon the rights and plights
of the nation’s workers and recognize the need to strengthen labor laws. Let us
gather, contemplate and celebrate a more just treatment of all those who toil.

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