It’s mid-afternoon on Labor Day 2017 and my mind is filled with mostly disconnected thoughts about this federal holiday.
Government offices, schools and banks are closed, and so are many businesses. But many retailers, restaurants and service-oriented businesses — I’m thinking gas stations and mini-marts — are open on this first Monday in September as if it were any other day.
Is it really a holiday if so many Americans are working? Am I helping or hurting those who have to work today by patronizing their businesses?
True confession: One of the first things I did this morning was to call a credit card company about a billing question. I did so, half hoping that I’d get a recording that told me they were closed and I’d need to contact them the next day.
Didn’t happen. The customer service rep I spoke to handled my issue promptly and efficiently. When I told him I was sorry he had to work today, he thanked me but brushed it off as no big deal and assured me he was receiving holiday pay.
Later in the morning, I visited a neighborhood coffee shop to meet with a young journalist and found the place at near capacity. Afterward, I dropped in at a grocery store to pick up a couple of non-essential items. If today was a holiday, you couldn’t tell at either place.
And, of course, that leads into how we got here.
According to Newsweek: Workers in New York City celebrated the first Labor Day on September 5, 1882, with a parade organized by trade unions. But while the first rally was held in New York, Oregon was the first state to institute Labor Day as a holiday, passing legislation to that effect in 1887. [I didn’t know that.]
Over the following seven years, some 30 states made it a holiday. In 1894, the U.S. Congress voted unanimously to approve Labor Day as a national holiday, and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law.
Bloody clashes continued, however. During the last two decades of the 1800s, workers carried out some 37,000 strikes in the United States; and between 1870 and 1914, up to 800 American workers were killed during strikes, according to The Washington Post.
In time, the violence subsided and we became accustomed to employers giving this day off to workers to be with their families. But union membership has plummeted in recent decades and workers seemingly have it harder than ever in today’s gig economy.
Except in the public sector, pensions seem to be a thing of the past. A growing number of states have recently raised the minimum wage but the federal minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25 — the rate set in 2009. Older workers continue to work beyond normal retirement age while younger workers try to create decent income from multiple part-time jobs with no benefits.
So where are we headed?
Judging by a handful of perspectives, I think things are only going to get worse for the American worker — in terms of pay, taxes, workplace expectations and the effects of disruptive technology.
— For all his campaign bluster about helping bring back blue-collar jobs, President Trump has shown no interest in raising the minimum wage and has appointed numerous anti-union officials to administration posts, says Steven Greenhouse, a former labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times.
— Trump’s tax-cut plan aims to steeply cut tax rates for businesses and wealthy individuals at the expense of working men and women, The New York Times said in an editorial. An analysis of Trump’s proposals by a nonpartisan tax policy center shows that the proposed tax cuts would raise after-tax income for the top 1 percent of taxpayers by more than 11 percent and by just 1.3 percent for taxpayers in the middle, the Times said.
— In Silicon Valley, rank-and-file workers — not just start-up founders — are buying into the “madness” of extreme workaholism as a lifestyle choice, according to an op-ed by Dan Lyons, an author and Fortune columnist on technology issues.
A century ago, factory workers were forming unions and going on strike to demand better conditions and a limit on hours. Today, Silicon Valley employees celebrate their own exploitation. “9 to 5 is for the weak” says a popular T-shirt.
— Lastly, an essay in Medium with the provocative headline “The Last Auto Mechanic” makes the case that within 15 years virtually all vehicular traffic in the U.S. will be by self-driving electric vehicles and examines what that means for industries and workers now dependent on the traditional internal combustible engine.
The short answer: millions of jobs lost.
If this Price is right — Tom Price, renewable energy entrepreneur, is the Medium author — we could see car dealers, gas station owners, auto parts suppliers become obsolete and other motorist-dependent sectors such as motels and restaurants hemorrhage jobs.
America’s transportation economy and landscape is about to be utterly transformed into a world beyond driving. Or drivers. Or even car mechanics.
Kind of a scary future, isn’t it?