My late father was an immigrant who correctly gambled he could use his skills as a mechanic and homebuilder to chase the American Dream. Dad started by making a few dollars an hour. But he did better than most, eventually owning a gas station, a repair shop and a couple of other businesses.
He accomplished all of that thanks to the sort of work ethic we celebrate on Labor Day when we put down our beers and barbecue and try to remember to pay tribute to the contributions workers make to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.
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Labor Day was established more than 100 years ago and a lot has changed about our economy in the decades since, most of it good, but some of it perhaps less so.
What nags at me is that we live lives today that are so far removed from the historic notion of labor, it seems as if the only place in our culture where we hold workers in any esteem is in pickup truck TV ads.
I mean, the unrelenting vilification of labor unions nowadays feels like it’s become a national pastime. The paychecks workers bring home every week or two offer the clearest evidence of the problem, thanks to wages that have dropped 2.6 percent between 2007 and 2012.
The Great Recession no doubt played a role in that. But life for the average American worker has been getting tougher for a long time. Over the past 30 years or so, college tuition has surged more than 500 percent, medical costs are up 286 percent and the consumer price index has seen a 121 percent gain.
How can we expect families to cope?
It may be a losing battle for the moment, but Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez issued a statement on Labor Day that once more called for an increase in the minimum wage.
“Over the past 100 years, one federal agency has been workers’ strongest ally and fiercest advocate: the U.S. Department of Labor. Our job is to make the American Dream a reality for all,” Perez said. “… We’re continuing our strong efforts and unparalleled commitment to protect workers’ benefits, so they can retire with dignity and security. And we’re fighting for an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. It’s a moral and economic imperative that we raise the federal minimum wage. People who work full-time in America shouldn’t live in poverty.”
A few weeks back I wrote in this space about why I, too, think we need to raise our workers’ wages. But a more recent story from our Gina Binole left little doubt about the fate of such a proposal, at least this year.
Here’s a point to consider in all this: There wasn’t anything sentimental about my father’s journey to these shores. Just like millions of others, he came to the United States to pursue opportunity first and foremost. Coming here was about finding better pay and job security. All of the immigrants who arrived before and after my father helped build America into an even better place. But what happens when opportunity wanes?
Even one of the free market’s leading thinkers, Adam Smith, warned of this: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged.”
And so if there’s little to gain from our “labours,” we will surely do what my Dad did: simply seek greener pastures – and leave our former homelands to waste.