Monday, September 01, 2008

Labor Day 2008 - It's Still the Economy, Stupid

With Hurri- cane Gustav storming towards the Gulf Coast and the Repub- licans trying to salvage their convention in the face of it – not to mention the millions of Americans preparing to head for the mall in areas not plagued by homicidal weather – it’s easy to forget that today is Labor Day. But especially this year, Labor Day should not be forgotten.

The US Department of Labor explains that Labor Day is celebrated annually on the first Monday in September and is “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers… and the
“…contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.” The holiday was first celebrated in New York City in 1882 and after campaigning by union activists and acceptance by more than two dozen state referendums, Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894. It was conceived as a day of parades and festivals and major speeches by labor leaders, businesspeople and politicians. It was always intended to be a joyful day off for working folks, but not a socially unconscious barbecue.

As I write this, two million people from Texas to Alabama along the Gulf are settling in for the night somewhere other than home. State and federal efforts to evacuate the region and not repeat the unconscionable nightmare of Hurricane Katrina seem to have so far been successful; those who were physically or financially unable to get out under their own steam were apparently dispatched in a decent manner. But as this AP photo of Gustav evacuees in a shelter in Tyler, Texas shows, the displacement for many is still hard going, and what people will return to when it’s over, nobody knows.

Unfortunately, the millions uprooted by Gustav, most of whom are American workers, are not the only American workers who won’t be going to work on Tuesday. Per, the country lost 51,000 jobs in July and the unemployment rate (a misleading figure to begin with) rose to 5.7% from 5.5%, which is the highest rate since March, 2004 and the seventh consecutive month of job losses for a 2008 total to date of 463,000.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are nearly nine million unemployed Americans – but that number doesn’t reflect those persons no longer receiving Unemployment Insurance; those in the military (many of whom have no civilian jobs to come home to); those working one or more part-time jobs and barely making ends meet; high school and college kids who need part-time jobs and can’t find them; the retired and disabled on inadequate fixed incomes; or those who have full-time jobs acquired in recent years that provide a fraction of the salary and benefits of their old, longstanding jobs, the ones that were downsized through corporate mergers/bankruptcies or outsourced overseas.

Fewer people will be shopping this Labor Day and those who do will be buying less and making every effort to pay the cheapest prices possible. Huge problems, and a great many of them, face America on this election year Labor Day, but none so urgent as the wholesale under-employment and outrageously increased financial difficulty (if not outright poverty) of the vast majority of Americans. We are not contributing nearly as much strength, prosperity and well-being to our country as we want and need to.

My heart goes out to the citizens who call the Gulf Coast home and who at this moment have no idea what level of crisis they’ll have to deal with after Gustav leaves. Considering that relatively little improvement was made in the three years since Katrina, it doesn’t look good for them. And until all of the politicians courting our votes this year show that they understand that a seriously damaged work force makes for a seriously damaged America – and then do something about it – it doesn’t look too good for the rest of us, either.

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