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Robyn E. Blumner

Laboring under a sinking feeling

It is Labor Day on Monday, the day established more than 100 years ago to celebrate working people. You and me. Happy day.

But we modern-day workers of America are in no mood to party. Our prospects are about as promising as a lottery ticket holder's. Just how many times does one have to lose before it sinks in that the game's rigged?

Here's our Labor Day reality: Worker productivity rose 2.5 percent a year between 2000 and 2007. Meanwhile wages stagnated, health benefits withered, defined-benefit pensions disappeared and income inequality soared.

This doesn't just happen. This abandonment of middle class wage earners has been a long-term project — a pact, if you will, between the donor class of wealthy individuals and corporate chieftains and the government that serves them.

The latest Census Bureau numbers released on Tuesday cement the Bush legacy. They reveal that despite a small uptick last year in median income, between 2000 and 2007 working families received no benefit from the nation's increased prosperity. The real median incomes of households headed by a worker under 65 fell $2,176.

What American workers need is an economic recovery from the last economic recovery.

And you know where all the rewards of the growing economy landed. They found their way to that sliver of people who have trouble remembering how many houses they own.

If you want to know how all this happened, read The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule by Thomas Frank. He's the guy who wrote the book What's The Matter With Kansas? illuminating how conservative politicians use those frothing and fulminating issues of abortion and gay marriage to bamboozle the working class of middle America into voting for them. Then they turn around and cut taxes for the rich and starve government services that working class people need to advance themselves.

This time Frank documents what conservatives have done with their political power. He describes:

• How government jobs are handed to "cronies, hacks, partisans and creationists" as a way to wrest the bureaucracy from anyone who actually believes in its power to do good and has the talent to make that happen;

• how civil servants are demonized to make room for the privatization of government functions — still paid for by taxpayers but now with hefty profits to corporate America;

• and how public policy is created to respond to lobbyists' demands on behalf of industry and global capital and not the interests of the American people.

Don't read the book after a big lunch. You just might lose it.

But it doesn't have to be this way going forward. If America's wage earners would just come to realize that their current financial tightrope-walk is due to a government that has been looking the other way — if not shaking the rope — as their prospects decline, change can come.

The Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, progressive think tank of highly trained economists, offers a number of well-researched and comprehensive suggestions in its Plan to Revive the American Economy (www.sharedprosperity.org).

Not much will surprise you: The plan includes guaranteed health care and a shoring up of retirement security, fair trade policies, an investment in infrastructure and a boost in the minimum wage. But the ideas are specific and vetted by experts, with the point to get government back in the business of looking out for working people rather than those with houses to spare.

Labor Day used to be a moment to celebrate worker solidarity and the power of the labor movement to secure rising living standards and a fair exchange for one's work. But somehow we lost our collective consciousness, leaving most of us to stand alone with the bargaining power of a gnat and the economic insecurity to show for it.

Let this Labor Day be a time to re-learn that our lot as workers is connected. Because as a nation of independent contractors, we are constantly being overlooked and underbid.

Laboring under a sinking feeling 08/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 4:48pm]
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