For All Who Labor

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August 31, 2011

For most of us, work defines us; even those who are retired. Work gives our lives meaning. Work provides avenues for accomplishment. Work dominates our lives.

Work provides us the resources to live. But for most Americans, this Labor Day, we are working harder and doing worse.

Almost sixty years ago, President Kennedy, suggested a rising tide raises all boats.  The theory goes if productivity increases, workers benefit.

For many years in the US, this was so.

According to the Economic Mobility Project, a Pew Trust report, between 1947 and 1974 productivity and median family income (adjusted for inflation) both roughly doubled. Then in the mid seventies a shift began. No longer did increasing productivity result in the same rate of increase in workers’ wages. By this century the gulf had widened dramatically. Between 2000 and 2005, productivity rose 16% and median income actually fell 2%.

The Economic Policy Institute put these numbers in real terms: from 2000 to 2007 the median U.S. income for working households dropped by $2,000.

The US Department of Commerce reports workers’ wages make up roughly half of national income. Employers measure both wages and benefits when they calculate payroll. Commerce numbers from 2010 show wages and benefits make up a lower share of our national income than at any time since 1965.

And rising health costs are taking a bigger chunk of the benefits part of ‘wages and benefits’ – meaning less to spend on the goods and services that keep our economy afloat.

The news is also not good for small businesses. Numbers released a month ago by the Department of Commerce and reported by Floyd Norris of the New York Times show small business also took in less of the national income. Proprietors’ and partnerships’ share of national income fell to a 17-year low of 7.7 percent in 2009. This share of income did recover slightly in first quarter of this year. But most small business owners tell me things are still very difficult.

Not so for large corporations. Commerce Department data based on tax returns show corporate profits reached its highest proportion of national income ever this summer. Corporate profit accounted for 14 percent of national income. The previous peak was in 1942, Norris reported, when war escalated demand and government imposed wage and price controls to hold down costs.

Whether you are a small business owner or work for a large company, we are all working longer hours. Reports vary, but it seems Americans work longer than those in most industrialized countries including Japan. And of course, we take less time off – either for vacations or raising a family.

One day many of us do have off is Labor Day. Those who work or have worked will celebrate the traditional end of summer around the country. But this Labor Day many are taking the opportunity to celebrate and thank those who work. Right here in western Wisconsin, people are invited to Eau Claire to celebrate All Who Labor.

The traditional Labor Day picnic is expanded this year with an invitation to all workers.

The Labor Day Walk and Rally will begin at 10 am September 5th. Walkers will start from five locations in the city and join at Phoenix Park. Local leaders, Congressman Kind and your state senator will speak. Following the program all will be asked to join in a picnic. More information can be found at Eau Claire Labor Day March and Rally

Wherever you labor, all are invited to attend. If possible, you are asked to wear your work clothes and represent your trade and profession. A special invitation is extended to workers from the countryside including farmers and rural residents.

In an economy where few have benefited at the expense of many it seems time to join the many as one. Labor Day provides us an opportunity to celebrate all who labor.

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