Yes, Labor Day was created
as a celebration of unions, then adopted by many of us non-union
workers as a celebration of, and a well-deserved holiday from, the
productive work that gave us our relatively comfortable American
Most of us were lucky
enough to have jobs, some starting in our youth after school and
during the summer. Work, labor, our independence, the things we
could buy, like a home and a car, were part of the American Dream.
Many academics have been
studying the decline of that dream, and I’ve read what I could, but:
Here is just what I’ve noticed myself as I lived through the
In my youth, in the
typical middle-class family (in which, I should mention, two parents
were married), the father worked to provide for his wife and
children. The mother may have worked part time, but mostly she was
home with the children.
I wasn’t alone among their
female children in wanting more independence. It’s significant that
some of our mothers, and even our fathers, encouraged our learning a
skill before marrying – nursing, teaching, secretarial work. My dad
thought I should become an executive secretary or maybe a librarian.
This is why I became the first in my direct family to go to college;
while I didn’t graduate, the skills I picked up in two years came in
handy after the second divorce.
So while we can discuss
another time the effect that female independence had on the family
over the years, my point today is that society’s economic sector
quickly became accustomed to families with two paychecks, and prices
rose to match that extra money. Eventually, some of that
independence led to the single-parent family and the single paycheck
again, often causing economic hardship unless unmarried fathers took
financial responsibility for their children.
So in some cases we’re
back where we started, with one paycheck, except still with a
society whose homemaking prices are assuming two paychecks. “Full
employment” seems to include jobs for both parents in a family, many
more people than were expected to be employed during my childhood.
However, for most of my adult life, this seemed a viable status quo.
And to mention in passing:
our immigration policy made sense and added to the workforce as
addition was needed, while welfare that replaced work was tightly
restricted to families that were temporarily going through hard
Then, along with today’s
illegal immigration and generational welfare issues, this is what
went wrong, it seems to me.
First, the labor movement,
which had kept Big Business under control, got greedy and became Big
Labor. Its excessive demands, happening as the world itself shrunk,
encouraged business to move its jobs overseas.
Illustration By Barry Locke
The Weekly Standard
This was most evident in
the American auto industry, though the auto tycoons also contributed
to decline by missing my generation’s desire for a smaller, more
efficient, more affordable car. The American automobiles we grew up
with were replaced among my peer group with the German VW bug, then
trustworthy Japanese cars – and many of us never looked back, though
I was happy enough when I learned that my beloved Honda was being at
least assembled in Ohio. “Buy American” is still a happy, patriotic
slogan, when one can still find "American" to buy.
So the private-sector
unions take much of the blame, but they’ve also suffered the
consequences, with union membership dropping from its peak in 1954
of 28.3 percent to just over 11 percent today – a level that can’t
protect working people from the outsourcing that has grown far
beyond the original motivation of avoiding union excess. The
pro-union Democratic Party turned away from the private-sector
unions and began giving outrageous benefits to the public-sector
unions, whose jobs had to remain local. These chickens are starting
to come home to roost, too, as communities can’t afford to keep
paying the “negotiated” benefits.
But then there is the
Republican Party, which still preaches “trickle-down/supply-side
economics, banking and environmental “deregulation,” “a
self-regulating marketplace” and “free trade.”
Since I wasn’t influenced
by a college economics course, I never hesitated to consider the
economics of John Kenneth Galbraith, as interpreted by liberal
academics during political debates, as completely nuts. But the
counter theories of the Reagan Revolution – which seemed valid at
the time — don’t make much sense to me anymore, either. While they
might work theoretically, hand them to today’s Big Government/Big
Business power structure and they get adjusted to benefit those
whose greed matches that which has almost destroyed Big Labor.
Then there’s the
Republican urging for general “growth.” I’ve long been asking
Republican friends, “Where are we growing TO?” How can we continue
as a consumer economy, in which a president responds to a major
terrorist attack by telling us to go shopping? I recall that as the
moment that I gently discarded what I had been taught during my
early activist years, and started looking for a different way to run
an economy. I found my way back to the origins of our country,
during which Benjamin Franklin advocated thrift, not waste; and to
Republican Teddy Roosevelt’s battle for conservation of our natural
resources. This is where I remain.
I define good “growth” as
new businesses addressing the above problems, creating exports to
address our trade deficit, cleaning up the environment and facing
drought with water-saving inventions and methodologies.
think the best way of doing good to the poor is not making them easy
in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.” Following his
advice would help solve the illegal immigration problem, too.
One thing that still
remains is the American entrepreneurial spirit, and the spiritual
descendants of the 1773 Tea Party, who I hope are preparing another
Our Founding Fathers would
roll over in their graves at the sight of $18 trillion in national
debt. Labor Day: let’s admit what it means today, that our
grandchildren will labor to pay our country’s debts, that we didn’t
tax ourselves to pay but just enjoyed the fruits of our borrowing.
We have much to be ashamed
of this weekend. Starting Tuesday, let’s labor together to fix our
Barbara Anderson of
Marblehead is a weekly Salem