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What Does Labor Day Mean Today?

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On Monday, September 3, Americans will celebrate Labor Day. This annual national holiday was created more than 100 years ago as a tribute to the American worker. To most Americans these days, however, Labor Day seems to be more about end-of-summer picnics, beach excursions, and an extra day off from work.

The average American isn't the only one who has lost sight of the contributions and sacrifices of the workers of this nation. Over the past couple of decades, American corporations have been ignoring the needs of the workers in order to focus instead on stuffing the bottomless pockets of the CEOs. And the U.S. government has been giving them all the help and support they need.

It wasn't always this way.

Take Henry Ford, for example. Ford introduced the concept of a 40-hour work week for his employees, and paid them relatively high wages for that era. Since Ford paid his employees well, they could afford to buy their own Ford cars. It was a win-win situation.

Ford wasn't without his faults, however. Ford disapproved of labor unions. Accordingly, he was the last Detroit automaker to recognize the United Auto Workers union, finally caving in to pressure from his wife and from other auto manufacturers.

That was before the right to form labor unions was guaranteed by Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But still today there are a lot of corporate giants who either are not aware of that guarantee or just don't care. Also guaranteed under Article 23, and equally ignored by corporate America today, are the right to just and favorable conditions of work, the right to equal pay for equal work, and the right to just and favorable remuneration that will ensure "an existence worthy of human dignity."

First let's take a look at the union issue today. Unions protect workers from corporate tyranny. Unionization gives workers the power to bargain for fair wages, decent benefits, and safe working conditions. But corporations are engaging in extreme union busting, illegally threatening and intimidating workers who want to form or join a union. According to the non-profit organization Workplace Fairness, 25% of employers have illegally fired at least one worker for union activity during organizing campaigns, 75% of employers hire consultants to help them fight union organizing, and 92% of employers force employees to attend mandatory anti-union presentations. As a result, union membership in the U.S. has declined significantly in recent years, from a high of over 35% at the end of World War II to approximately 13% today. By keeping out the unions, corporations can retain only non-union employees who are so desperate for work that they'll accept poverty-level wages, unfavorable working conditions, and unfair treatment.

But the decline of unions in this country is only one of the problems facing American workers today. From manufacturing to computer engineering, U.S. jobs are being outsourced to India and China, where employees are willing to work longer hours for a fraction of what their American counterparts would be paid.

In short, America is being sold to the lowest bidders, and those whose jobs remain in this country are at the mercy of their employers.

And it seems that the U.S. government exists to serve the corporations, not the people.

It's a corporatocracy gone wild.

As a result, the gap between the rich and the poor in this country grows ever wider. The middle class is shrinking, and the American dream has become a pipe dream.

If these things are allowed to continue over time, what will we be left with? A serfdom?

And what will Labor Day mean 50 years from now?

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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
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