A Labor Day for the 21st Century

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By Brian Miller

Every year, we celebrate Labor Day to honor the work of everyday Americans who built this country brick by brick, community by community. It’s an honorable holiday that pays tribute to honorable work.

While it’s always good to give thanks, we need much more than well wishes and a cheer of support. We need to ensure that the rules that govern our economic system, whether those rules come from Wall Street or from Washington, treat all Americans, particularly those who are the backbone of our economy, with dignity and respect. That’s what Labor Day is truly about.

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From the time the first Labor Day was held, Americans understood that even what we call a “free” market still has rules that govern its actions; rules that can either work for or against the average American. That’s why they fought for a more just set of rules, a fight that ultimately led to the 40-hour workweek, the first minimum wage laws, the abolition of child labor, and workplace safety standards.

Over the last 30 years, we’ve seen the pendulum swing back the other way. While many of the victories won in those early years still stand, we’ve seen an erosion of the right of workers to organize, the weakening of worker and public safety standards, and wholesale rollback of our tax system’s more progressive elements.

All we have received in return is a shift in fortunes to the wealthiest individuals in our economy, with little or none of the promised “trickle down” for the rest of America.
From 1947 to 1979, when our country grew as a whole and prosperity was broadly shared, we saw incomes rise across all income groups. As measured using the bottom, middle, and top 20 percent of income-earners, the incomes of the bottom grew by 116 percent, the middle grew by 111 percent, and the highest income-earners saw their income rise by 86 percent. That’s what broad prosperity looks like.

By comparison, from 1979 to 2005, income growth was almost entirely focused on the top income-earners. The bottom group actually saw their incomes decline slightly; while the middle group saw their incomes grow by only 15 percent. Meanwhile, the top group of income-earners saw a 53 percent growth of income. The top 1 percent alone saw their incomes grow by 81 percent. While income and wealth grew at the top, the rest of America was treading water.

In fairness, many Americans were excluded from this earlier period of broad growth, particularly African-Americans and other people of color. By the time some of the nation’s most oppressive and racist policies were done away with, incomes at the bottom had already stagnated, leaving few opportunities for people of color to advance.

Nonetheless, history shows that when the rules that govern our economy are designed well, Americans in all income groups can share in the prosperity. That should be our goal.

The good news is that Americans are waking up and demanding change. Public awareness of economic inequality has never been higher, and the economic crisis has pulled back the curtain on the failed policies of the past.

Now is the time for average Americans to take back the reins of government. Several key issues will likely come up in Congress soon that can help restore a more broadly-shared prosperity and strengthen the common good.

First, we must repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Those unnecessary and damaging tax cuts helped fuel the massive budget deficits we now face, while exaggerating the income and wealth disparities.

Second, we must preserve a strong and effective federal estate tax. This fall, Congress will begin debating the future of the estate tax. A strong estate tax is essential to an economy that rewards hard work and not just the fortune of one’s birth.

Third, we need to help working families hold onto their homes, the single most important asset for most low and middle-income families, amidst the current housing crisis. Additionally, we need to support policies that enable low-income families, and particularly people of color who were left out of earlier economic booms, to attain home ownership and build assets.

With a comprehensive strategy for rebuilding our middle class, we can do more than pay lip service to the work of Americans on Labor Day. We can instead genuinely and honestly show our commitment to honoring the work of all Americans by passing policies that help lower and middle-income Americans share in the nation’s prosperity.

Miller is executive director of United for a Fair Economy, a national organization that works to build awareness of the dangers of vast inequalities of wealth and power, and ultimately foster policies that lead to a more broadly-shared prosperity. To learn more visit www.faireconomy.org.


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