It’s time to Break It Down!
(This post appeared originally in this space on August 31, 2011. It was re-purposed and presented again September 3, 2014, September 7, 2016, and today, September 6, 2017, has been edited and updated to reflect current unemployment data.)
Monday was Labor Day. At its core, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Day in the United States was designed to commemorate the creation of the labor movement; dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. The holiday focuses on contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well being of our country.
First observed in September 1882, the event has always been observed on the first Monday of the month. Initiated by the Central Labor Union of New York, the celebration became a federal holiday in 1894.
In addition to its formal structure and purpose, Labor Day has a number of symbolic associations. It is considered:
- The unofficial “End of Summer”
- The last 3-Day warm weather weekend for vacationers
- By High Society standards, the last day for which it is appropriate for women to wear white
- The beginning of the College Football Season (the preceding Saturday)
- The start of the NFL Season (typically the following Thursday)
- The conventional kick-off of hard core political campaign season
- Back–to-School shopping
On the formal side, while the Labor Department’s blurb omits any reference to it, Labor Day also validates and recognizes an often controversial mechanism that frequently divides American opinion; the labor union. Scorned by many who fancy themselves as Free Enterprise Capitalists, unions and their members have not only been actively involved historically, in debates that framed public policy for American workers, they have won or forced hard-earned concessions that in the shimmering glow of reflective perspective, must be considered to have fundamentally altered the playing field (known as the workplace), including:
- Health Care Benefits
- Paid Vacations
- Equal Pay to women
- The Development of Child Labor Laws
- The 5-Day Work Week
- The 40-Hour Work Week
- The8-Hour Work Day
- Worker’s Compensation benefits
- Female Flight Attendants permitted to marry
These and many other important cherished and effective employee rights are attributable to the efforts of the American Labor Movement. But, this is not an ode to Labor Unions. Unions also have downsides. They create or contribute to:
- The potential for strikes
- Additional costs to all employees (membership dues; whether a member or not)
- Loss of individuality (ability to represent one’s self in a grievance)
- Subject to fines & discipline by the Union
- Disincentives to productivity and competition
- Lack of promotions
- Burdensome salary demands (relative to the market)
- Loss of profits (and/or pay) due to strike
- Inefficient & ineffective contracts
- Increased unemployment due to failure to reach agreement w/management
The first Labor Day celebration was led by a Labor Union. The history of the Day has been linked, inextricably, with Labor organizations, ever since. But if it is the American Worker the Day was intended to commemorate, Labor Day 2011 was set in an auspicious and trenchant backdrop:
- The Unemployment Rate in the U.S. was reported to be 9.1% in July 2011
- The economy added only 117,000 jobs in July (154,000 in the private sector, -37,000 government jobs lost); better than expected, but still a dismally low number
- Businesses are stockpiling $2 trillion in cash
Three years hence, the picture, thankfully, was much improved:
- The Unemployment Rate in the U.S. was reported to be 2% in July 2014
- The economy added 209,000 jobs in July 2014
- August 2014 employment data was released the first Friday in September
In 2011, President Obama, announced after the Debt Ceiling Deal on August 2nd, that he would present a jobs proposal for Congress to consider, and was set to do so, after Labor Day, (on September 8th). The proposal included a combination of tax cuts, spending on infrastructure, and measures designed to assist the long-term unemployed, while bolstering certain sectors of the economy. This potion sounds eerily similar to the ideas Democrats proposed when negotiating the Debt Deal.
Republicans were lined up to oppose the plan, suggesting instead, among other things, a Balanced Budget Amendment; a balm the GOP/Tea Party also suggested during the Debt Deal negotiation. In short, there was little expectation for significant movement, or the adoption of sweeping legislation to address the lack of jobs in America…and there wasn’t. What we had instead was, déjà vu…all over, again! Then, I was compelled to ask, “Labor Day: Where Is The Celebration?” Fast forward three years, and the truth is the labor dynamics in this country had improved appreciably. However, our country was still beset by challenges.
Each day we were faced with a series of old, and developing challenges abroad. Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine, Russia, North Korea, China, Somalia, are all global hot spots, just to name a few. Then of course, there was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the burgeoning by ISIS/ISIL, also known as the Islamic State. And oh yeah, we were still winding down in Afghanistan.
In the August 2016 Jobs Report, issued September 2, 2016, the nation’s Job’s Report continued to improve:
- The Unemployment Rate in the U.S. was reported at 4.9%
- The economy added 151,000 jobs in August 2016
- Paychecks grew 2.4% compared to the previous year
- Jobs Growth record extended to 77 consecutive months
The August 2017 Jobs Report, issued September 1, 2017, showed that the economy, for the most part, held steady during the month of August.
- The Unemployment Rate in the U.S. was reported at 4.4%, up slightly
- The economy added 156,000 jobs in August 2017
- Earnings rose 2.5% over the past 12 months; however, the average work week shrank .1 hour to 34.4 hours per week, which means paychecks were a bit smaller
- The Jobs Growth record has extended to 89 consecutive months (7 months for #45)
August job growth is historically volatile, and is the slowest month for job growth since the Reports have been published. The increase in jobs was disappointing, however, it was still an increase. Though disappointing, the increase, when viewed through the lens of the trend line, was not all that surprising. Moreover, the number more than doubles the 5-year average for the month of August, which is 71,000. It is also important to add, the Unemployment Rate remained comfortably below 5%.
Unlike in 2011, in 2014, 2016, and again Monday, in my opinion, Labor Day brought us more of a day of respite and reflection in honor of our country’s Labor Movement. On top of all that don’t forget, as the sixth bullet from the top advises, the conventional kick-off of the hard-core political campaign season is upon us. The General Election is just 64 days away. While there is no Presidential Election this year, please understand that elections have consequences. The entire House of Representatives, 535 members, is up for re-election, in addition to 1/3 (33 members) of the Senate. By all means be sure to exercise your franchise; vote!
It’s “Labor Day – Six Years Later,” and while we’ve got plenty of issues to temper our celebration, we should indeed celebrate America’s phenomenal Labor Movement. I’m done; holla back!
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