Reckoning with Labor on Labor Day

What if there could be a wild success, of creating “good jobs, while protecting workers' rights, wages, health and safety”? Wouldn’t that be a most excellent thing to celebrate on a Labor Day?

The official webpage about Labor Day from the Department of Labor has this to say about today’s holiday. (The featured image is also from their website).

Observed the first Monday in September, Labor Day is an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers. The holiday is rooted in the late nineteenth century, when labor activists pushed for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity, and well-being.

It also includes a history of legislation proclaiming the day, and some squabbles about who first proposed this celebratory holiday. There’s a note about how appropriate it is to celebrate American workers, as their labors have raised the nation’s standard of living, etc, etc. It’s a lovely piece of government wishful thinking, and it doesn’t much help my feeling that today should be a day of mourning, reckoning, or action. Anything but celebration, given the fierce injustices of the American labor market these days. 

This past week, I picked up the book Poverty, by America authored by Matthew Desmond. The picture he paints is so excruciatingly painful. Do you know that over 5 million Americans subsist on less than $4 a day? Since I have a hard time even imagining that (as I sip my $5.30 coffee at a Palo Alto cafe that I drove to in my car, from my house), Desmond fills it in for me, and oh! On $4 a day, life descends quickly from trying to find food and shelter to resorting to desperate (largely criminal) choices. There are over 1 million homeless children, and the number is trotted out as though they are the more sympathetic victims, as children are always so innocent, thrown into a system of poverty, trapped by choices that other people have made. 

I will say that Desmond makes it perfectly clear that the adults are just as (or perhaps more) trapped, literally unable to make better and different decisions because the entire point of poverty is how deprived people become of meaningful choices not of their own design.

But since today is Labor Day, let us focus in on one of the American laborers he introduces us to. Let’s meet Julio, shall we?

Several years ago, I met Julio Payes, a permanent resident from Guatemala who came to the United States on a work visa. He lived in Emeryville, California, a city of roughly twelve thousand residents, sandwiched between Oakland and Berkeley. In 2014, Julia was working eighty hours a week at two full-time jobs. He began his day with the graveyard shift at a twenty-four-hour McDonald’s, where he served burgers and fries from 10P.M. to 6 A.M. After his shift ended, he had two hours to rest and shower. Then he’d clock in at Aerotek, going anywhere the temp service sent him between 8 A.M. and 4 P.M. When that shift ended, he slept as much as he could. Then it was back to McDonald’s. To stay awake, Julio loaded up on coffee and soda. Each job paid minimum wage.

“I felt like a zombie,” Julio told me. “No energy. Always sad.” Yet to afford the single unfurnished room he shared with his mother and two siblings, he had to work up to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. It seemed Julio was either working or sleeping, with no life in between. Once, his younger brother, Alexander, who was eight at the time, told him he was saving money. “I want to buy one hour of your time,” Alexander told his older brother. “How much for one hour to play with me?” Julio looked at his brother and wept. Not long after that, he fainted from exhaustion in the aisle of a grocery store. He was twenty-four. (45).

I read this passage and took it in and glossed it, because yes, some people are sad and live in desperate situations. We all know this. And then I read it again, and let my heart read it with me, and it literally hurts. It hurts. Sixteen hours a day for seven days every week, and am I supposed to be happy about cheap McFlurries?

If you read the book (you should, as much as you can bear), you could also meet Crystal, or Woo, or any of the other workers Desmond introduces you to. I have to read his book to meet these people because honestly, it’s the easiest way I have to get introduced to workers like this. 

Is that shameful on my part?

It’s worse than that, really. One of the arguments that Desmond presents, after his heartbreaking portrait of poverty, is that this social situation doesn’t just “happen.” It happens because when people like Julio work like that, benefit accrues to other people in the economy. People like me.

And while I was prepared to think about how increasing labor costs at McDonald’s might drive up prices at McDonald’s, that’s really only the first level. (And also, if we compare with other countries, possibly not even true, but that’s another story).

There are deeper, more systemic ways that exploitative labor secures myself as a person who doesn’t have the day off on Labor Day because I don’t work in the first place, and even if I did, I could only imagine the sorts of jobs which have paid holidays, which is obviously not likely for workers like Julio. 

Here is Desmond again:

Corporate profits rise when labor costs fall. This is why Wall Street is so quick to pummel companies when they bump up wages. When Walmart announced in 2015 that it planned to increase its starting wage to at least $9 an hour, largely in response to public pressure, investors dumped the stock. Shares fell by 10 percent, erasing $20 billion in market value. It was the company’s biggest single-day loss on record. (58)

It’s surprising to me to be holding Walmart up as an employer trying to do the right thing, because it has such a profound history of labor abuses. Almost half of Walmart shares are owned privately by the Walton family, and I won’t lose sleep about their collective loss of $10 billion both because it is a drop in the bucket for them, and since the loss on the shares probably didn’t come from them, it’s all probably more modest than it ought to have been. But the point is deeper: anyone who is invested in Wall Street (more than half of America, but not poor workers) is not only enjoying more portfolio wealth not only because employers haven’t addressed low wages, but also because exploitative labor serves people who hold capital against people who actually do the labor. 

If only there were some government agency tasked with fixing this. 

Oh wait! There is.

Here is the mission statement of the Department of Labor:

At the Department of Labor, we’re building a worker-centric economy from the bottom up and the middle out by leveraging federal investments to create good jobs, while protecting workers’ rights, wages, health and safety, and supporting workers’ rights to organize for better conditions. This Labor Day, we’re celebrating workers by building an equitable, empowered workforce for all.

Are they? Are they “leveraging federal investments to create good jobs, while protecting workers’ rights, wages, health and safety, and supporting workers’ rights to organize for better conditions”? Is the United States government “building a worker-centric economy from the bottom up and middle out”? 

No, no it is not.

It’s not their fault, exactly. Maybe they’re desperately trying to accomplish their well-crafted and ambitious mission statement. But the economic structure of our country is called capitalism. It is designed to reward people with capital. It rewards investment, and that means it rewards people who have money to invest. The opposite of a capitalistic system is supposedly socialism, with all its connotations of collectivity and centrality and lack of choice, a proven dud, so to speak.

I won’t belabor the point, because I don’t need to rehearse what I already think, or put you through what you already think.

But I do think that maybe there could be an alternative to capitalism whose centrality isn’t about ownership and who owns the means of production. That is, perhaps, ceding the point, agreeing that those who have the most capital have the most power. The opposite of capitalism perhaps should be called laborism, where we all somehow acknowledge that capital itself is useless unless there is someone who is going to do something to put it to work. 

What if there could be a wild success, of creating “good jobs, while protecting workers’ rights, wages, health and safety”? Wouldn’t that be a most excellent thing to celebrate on a Labor Day?

Because here’s the end of the story: 

In 2015, Emeryville considered legislation to raise the minimum wage.  Julio became active in the Fight for $15, marching, striking and praying. In 2015, the legislation passed.

“When I spoke to Julio in the winter of 2019, he was making $15 an hour at Burger King and $15.69 at a large hotel, where he worked as a room attendant. He could now afford to work less, logging around forty-eight hours a week when things were slow and sixty hours when they weren’t. He slept more, took walks in the park. “It’s had a big impact on my life,” he told me. “I feel better.”

As Desmond writes, “A higher minimum wage is an antidepressant. It is a sleep aid. A stress reliever.” 

Perhaps it is dignity itself. There’s no way to put a price on those things, but in some cases, it is still for sale— at rock bottom, Labor-Day-sale prices.

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