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Labor Day Past and Present

Labor Day became a federal holiday in the United States in 1894. At that time, conflict between labor unions and the railroads had reached such a fever pitch that there was danger of the American economy taking a big hit. President Grover Cleveland took action by calling in the U.S. Military and U.S. Marshals to assist in squashing the conflict which became known as the Pullman Strike. As a result, a number of workers died.

waiting for lefty

Wanting to reduce the risk of widespread labor uprisings over the Pullman striker deaths at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals, Congress passed legislation making Labor Day, which had been celebrated in the U.S. since 1882, an officially recognized national holiday.

Because of the Pullman Strike of 1894, early celebrations of Labor Day included parades that exhibited the strength of the trade and labor organizations. Up until the 1970s, Labor Day parades in honor of the Labor Movement, were held all over the country. However, in recent times there has been a change. It's somewhat telling that today, in the age of consumerism, Labor Day is recognized as little more than a day off from work and a great time to shop.

But let's not be so quick to conclude that that change will last. The age of consumerism may be short-lived. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, rising unemployment has led to record high levels of long-term joblessness. In a report published in June 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said, “By the end of 2009, the jobless rate stood at 10.0 percent and the number of unemployed persons at 15.3 million. Among the unemployed, 4 in 10 (6.1 million) had been jobless for 27 weeks or more, by far the highest proportion of long-term unemployment on record, with data back to 1948.”

Americans are feeling the pinch. Even those who haven’t lost their jobs have been impacted in other significant ways – loss of equity in their homes, depreciating 401k values and the list goes on.

However, there is a group of Americans who aren’t negatively impacted by these troubling times. In fact, they’re actually doing better than ever. Juan Gonzalez of "Democracy Now" spoke, this past week, of this small number of Americans who are not feeling the bite of the economic downturn. Said Gonzales, “Chief Executive pay in 2009 more than doubled the CEO pay average for the 1990s. It more than quadrupled the CEO pay average for the 1980s and ran approximately 8 times the CEO pay average for all the decades of the mid twentieth century.”

Hmmm. How can that be?

A recent report published by the Institute of Policy Studies showed that CEOs who fired the most workers got the biggest salaries. Sarah Anderson, Global Economy Project Director for the Institute of Policy Studies and the lead author of the report, “Ceo Pay and the Great Recession" – tracked the compensation of CEOs for the 50 companies that have laid off the largest number of American workers. She found that the CEOs who fired the most workers made significantly more than their peers at other S&P 500 companies.

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Anderson was interviewed by Juan Gonzales. When asked for an example of a CEO who fit the profile documented in her report, Anderson offered up Mark Hurd, former CEO of Hewlett Packard who laid off more than 30,000 workers in an attempt to tighten the corporations belt – well, tighten everyone’s belt but his own. Mark Hurd earned more than $20 million dollars that year – just before being fired.

Anderson's report found that in the middle of the most devastating period of unemployment in this country, the CEOs who get the most recognition and the greatest compensation are the CEOs who fire the most people! This information alone is enough to make the average person want to scream but couple this with the extra tidbit that making these kinds of decisions don't serve the companies in the long run. In fact, according to Anderson's report, although there is short-term gain, the companies' bottom lines ultimately suffer in the long run.

But I didn’t write this article just to stir you up. Sure, this kind of information is enough to make anyone blow a gasket but it can also spur you to action. Turns out the Institute for Policy Studies has created the Working Group on Extreme Inequality and a cool website where you can find out how to do something positive to change the trajectory of this current situation.

The Pullman Strike was more than 100 years ago. The labor movement continued to make

strides well into the middle of the last century. Waiting for Lefty, a play written by Clifford Odets which is currently at Theatre West in Universal City is the story of a proposed taxi driver strike, set in 1935. It serves as a framework for seven vignettes, each showing struggles of workers in various fields in the 1930s. Whether we're looking back to the Pullman Strike in this country more than 100 years ago or looking at the labor movement around the time of the depression or looking at what is happening with labor in this country today - we can see that things haven’t changed much. There will always be those who take more than their fair share. I frequently am reminded of the story I’ve shared in another posting.

If you haven’t read this, you might find it useful. A friend of mine told me how his mother settled arguments when her children complained that they weren’t getting their fair share. He said her process grew out of this:

My friend’s mom baked his favorite pie. Actually, everyone in the family loved it so it didn’t last long. There was only a small portion left when he and his sister came to the kitchen looking for a snack. Both of them wanted that last piece of pie so their mom said they had to share it. Much to my friend’s disappointment, his mom handed a knife to his sister and told her to cut the remaining portion of pie into two. My friend was angry and felt cheated because his sister didn’t cut it into two equal portions. But just as his sister was about to grab the larger piece, his mom said, “not so fast — you cut it, now he gets to choose which piece is his”. They learned a major lesson that day. From then on, they were careful about treating each other fairly – well, at least when mom was around.

In the bigger scheme of things, his mom represents what this country needs -- regulation and public policy that guard against human's tendency to get the most for themselves and damn everyone else. Without public policies that address the concentration of wealth and, at the same time, raise badly needed revenue for social investments that foster real economic opportunity, we’re headed for more bad news and bigger troubles.