Monday, September 3, 2007

How to Celebrate Labor Day

Turn your head around. Look back.

None of us would be celebrating this day off in September if it weren’t for labor unions.

We wouldn’t have a 40-hour work-week. A two-day weekend. A guaranteed number of days off with pay, for sickness, vacation, family care, whatever. Paid holidays. We wouldn’t have one of the greatest living standards in the world, either. Without labor unions – organizations of workers formed to negotiate, and if necessary strike to extract, a fair shake – we’d still have child labor.

There wouldn’t be “the Greatest Generation,” either. There’d be no such thing as “occupational safety and health,” and there’d be no comp time, no Workers’ Compensation program, and no raises, or pension plans, or paid health insurance . . .

Er, uh . . . oh.

Turn your head. Look around.

Union membership is at an all-time low. Only 12% of American workers are union members. And employee pensions and paid health insurance don’t exist anymore. Even upper-middle-class families need two wage-earners to keep afloat, and millions of families work three or more jobs to barely make it. Employer-paid health care is pretty much history or costs a third of our take-home pay. Those of us who do have paid leave are afraid to take it, and way too many of us work part-time jobs that don’t offer any kind of “benefit” at all.

Hard to believe, right? I mean, what about the Beemers? The McMansions? Believing everybody else has it made has become a necessity, because there’s got to be hope for us. If we’ll just work a little harder. Save more. Get one more stock trader's guarantee-win tool kit, we, too, can be part of "the ownership society." As long as the set looks glamorous enough, how bad can the play really be?

To protect ourselves from reality, we build fences. Ideas that once shamed us have become essential to our sense of prosperity. We’ve let the phrase “working poor” into our homes as if it weren’t a rapist, let it sit down, make itself at home, and get us accustomed to the school of hard and dirty knocks. We’ve let conservatives trash the “[Jewish] intellectual elite” as if they haven’t been in the foreground of fighting the class and race war for decades. We’ve let them trash feminists as if we were somebody else's WMDs instead of the activists who are responsible for women’s access to a whole new and wholly appropriate self-respect and personal power, credit, the professions, public office, and major (but now threatened) labor and life protections.

We've let them insinuate that African Americans aren't responsible citizens and weren't the vanguard in drawing a line in the sand on racism, which, as you know, subsumes much of the classist crap we're carefully taught to believe. What's going on in New Orleans now is a case in point. To hear them tell it, the entire city is 100% welfare queens and drug dealers.

We’re now letting them confound us with lies and fear about immigrants, who want no more or less than we want, and can't get it at home because Mexico today is what America will be in twenty years unless we wake the hell up. When all the incentives and all the tax laws favor the ultra-rich, what happens to everyone else?

We're letting them savage single moms and dads and gay parents to blind us from the reality that it's not about relationship choices. It's about an economy where one person or one unprotected group -- especially one woman or two lesbian women -- can't get it done without paying an obscene personal price. We're letting them get away with this when in our hearts we know better.

It's an old, nasty, and highly effective game: Divide and conquer.

Don't let Rove-Bush-Cheney-Norquist-DeLay-McConnell win. Don't play. We're just sooooo NOT done yet.

We kick around terms like “trailer trash” as if the people who work at Wal-Mart are disgusting, when actually it’s the people who own and direct Wal-Mart who are disgusting. And it isn’t as if we, too, aren’t pretty much one pay check or one divorce from a single-wide. But as long as we can look down, we don’t really have to look up. That would cause a class war, and the Republican God knows, we can’t have that. So don't talk shit anymore, OK? Our self-respect has more to do with the self-respect of people who live in trailers and badly-built rental units than most of us have troubled to imagine. It's either about a "we" society or a "me" society, in Michael Moore's apt summary. WWJD?

Here’s the truth. For 95% of us, much of the set is hocked. Our debt load is enormous. For 95% of Americans, our standard of living has been in free-fall since the early 1970s. That means you, sweetie. Family wealth (you know this if you’ve been awake the last two weeks watching the whole country go into foreclosure) – all significant assets, including income, real estate, home, cars, checking, savings, and investment accounts, 401(ks)s, etc. – family wealth is shrinking every day for us. But not for the 5% of Americans who received 90% of the increase in income and in wealth in the boom days of the 80s and 90s.

But to them, we're not vulnerable enough. Meanwhile, our jobs are being exported like weapons systems.

So if we’re all a little anxious every day, you know it’s more about economic insecurity than it is about red and orange terror alerts. And if our kids look forward to being a lot worse off than we are, and if you can’t watch an hour of TV without seeing an ad for a sleeping pill, this Labor Day is a good day to think about why, and figure out what you can do about it.

If you haven’t been paying real attention; if your credit card is fat as blue-ribbon sow; if you can’t quite figure out how come there’s nothing to save and you know it ain’t all gas, welcome to America in 2007. It may be 114 years after the first Labor Day, but the fact you need to remember is that it’s also 26 years since Ronald Reagan fired 11,359 striking air traffic controllers on August 3, 1981, and declared war on collective bargaining.

What happened before -- in the 20s and 30s - can happen again. It is happening.

As Gore Vidal put it: in America, it’s socialism for the rich and a free market for the rest of us. Think about that. Open your eyes and your ears, and start rubbing your brain cells together.

To get a clue about the true dimensions of your economic security, and some things you can do about it, here are five books I’d call “required reading” if I could:

The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families,
Health Care, and Retirement, and How You Can Fight Back
. Jacob S. Hacker

Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and
What Can be Done About It
. Edward N. Wolff

Nickle and Dimed
. Barbara Ehrenreich

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War. Joe Bageant

Blue Collar Resistance and the Politics of Jesus. Tex Sample

The Lifelong Activist. Hillary Rettig (If you need a refresher course.)