Jobbed: Labor Day is a good time to reflect on the decline of America's working class.File 2006

Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not existed first; that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence … labor is the superior — greatly the superior — of capital.

Abraham Lincoln
Milwaukee, Wis., Sept. 30, 1859

The first Monday in September is “Labor Day.” The first recorded “workingman’s holiday” in the United States took place in New York City in 1882, where approximately 10,000 workers took an unpaid day to parade from City Hall to Union Square. The event caught hold in many locations and some states passed state labor holidays.

In May 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest cuts in wages and mistreatment of workers. Later that year, the American Railroad Union, headed by Eugene V. Debs, called for a boycott of all trains hauling Pullman rail cars. Rail traffic was effectively halted.

At the request of those who owned the railroads, the U.S. government sent federal troops to get the trains moving. Just eight years after the Haymarket massacre rocked Chicago and the world, more than a dozen workers were killed and the trains rolled again.

To make peace with a militant worker movement, President Grover Cleveland and the U.S. Congress rushed through a national labor holiday that same year. Over time, the labor movement created the first middle-class majority nation in the world. Millions of working Americans gained tangible benefits: health benefits, paid vacations, child labor laws, equal pay for equal work, safer working conditions, domestic partner benefits. But sharing wealth with those who produce it is a burden for those who control it.

In an article in Vanity Fair, economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote that the top 1% of Americans take in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income and control 40% of the nation’s wealth. Twenty-five years ago, the figures were 12% and 33% respectively. Over the same period, the middle class in America has seen a decline in income. Poverty is no longer a topic of conversation. This sustained wealth grab has many facets.

One is the ideologically driven debt ceiling deal. Congress voted to cut federal spending, shrink federal and state governments, gut services to the public and eliminate commercial and environmental oversight and regulation. Just as the U.S. government served the wealthy railroad tycoons in the 19th century, today’s wealthiest demand the servitude of their leveraged (s)elected officials.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the debt ceiling deal will result in 1.8 million fewer jobs due to the loss of the payroll tax holiday, the expiration of extended unemployment insurance, and near-term discretionary cuts (www.epi.org).

Americans need a serious and permanent jobs program that creates jobs that pay a living wage. We need to keep people in their homes. We need to fix the trade deficit. The debt ceiling deal is a Trojan horse.

Tom Broderick is co-chair of the Greater Oak Park Democratic Socialists of America.

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