Take Back Labor Day: Week One Roundup

Today was the conclusion of the first week of Take Back Labor Day, a Today’s Workplace blog project which invited many of the best and brightest in the workplace community to write about the continuing significance of Labor Day in these troubled times for workers. And what a week it was! By the end of the week, we registered 13 posts from a wide variety of contributors, including some of our top labor and workplace reporters, several authors of best-selling books, and an assorted bunch of law professors, policy experts, and bloggers, all of whom contributed very thoughtful posts reflecting their diverse perspectives.

On Labor Day itself (September 1), we launched the series with four posts from Steven Greenhouse, Phil Dine, Diane Stafford, and Lew Maltby. Steven, Phil and Diane are all part of a dying breed: they are labor and workplace reporter for mainstream American newspapers. Lew is part of a group that was very small to begin with: national organizations addressing workplace issues. (I know: Workplace Fairness is part of that small community as well.)

This Labor Day, workers are caught in “The Big Squeeze,” which is the title of Steven Greenhouse‘s new book. (He’s also the labor and workplace reporter for the New York Times.) Workers get far too little respect: “Far too often the accomplishments of the nation’s workers—whether it’s producing the food we eat or protecting us from hurricanes—are ignored, instead of honored.” Unfortunately, “To put it crudely, many companies seem to treat their workers like chumps—to be squeezed on wages, pushed to the limit and discarded when no longer needed.”

Lewis Maltby, executive director of the National Workrights Institute, talks about a number of benefits that unions provide, one being that “A fundamental rule of employment is that compensation is a zero sum game. Workers and management can cooperate to increase productivity and increase profits. But when it comes to dividing up the pie, a dollar that goes to management bonuses or shareholders is a dollar that will not go to workers.”

Diane Stafford, workplace reporter at the Kansas City Star and author of the Workspace blog, says that workers are jittery this Labor Day, with a new study that shows “more than 8 in 10 workers are worried about the state of the job market,” and another which shows that the “top 1 percent of earners enjoyed income growth of 204 percent from 1979 to 2006, while the lower 90 percent of earners gained 15 percent.”

While you might think it’s time to give up on unions, “in light of labor’s weak vital signs,” Philip Dine, labor reporter and author of State of the Unions, reminds us that Labor is as Relevant as Ever. Here’s why: “One key if often-overlooked reason the United States has long enjoyed economic and political stability has been a robust industrial relations system where management, labor and government voice their concerns….The current unbalanced system, however, generates the skewed policies and practices that have left so many Americans disillusioned.”

Tuesday (September 2) gave those returning to work after the holiday plenty to think about, with three posts from David Kusnet, Paul Secunda, and Art Levine, an author, a professor, and a blogger, respectively.

David Kusnet, who wrote the new book Love the Work, Hate the Job, tells us about four different groups of Seattle workers who despite their vast differences, all understood the importance of working collectively. Kusnet says, “[T]hese workers – and many others across the country – care deeply about the future of their companies and professions….They’re joining together with their co-workers and taking issue with their employers for the same reasons that they entered their professions. Unions, companies, and public policymakers should take notice of–-and tap into–this concern for quality.” (See Working Americans Want “More” and Better.)

Professor Paul Secunda, law professor at Marquette and co-editor of the Workplace Prof Blog, correctly notes that with the upcoming election, we have a choice to make regarding whether we want fair pay in the workplace, after the Supreme Court’s Ledbetter decision made it difficult if not impossible to bring an equal pay claim: “Let’s hope that regardless of who is elected president that women are no longer afforded merely second-class status in the workplace and the Ledbetter decision’s days are numbered.” (See The Importance of Fair Pay this Labor Day.)

Art Levine, blogger and contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, takes us inside the minds of unionbusters (it’s a scary place!), reminding us “[I]t’s time not only to remember workers in unions but those who want the opportunity to join them for the economic and benefits protection they offer, but can’t do so by the legalized unionbusting enabled by today’s feeble laws.”

On Wednesday, September 3, the quantity decreased to two, but the quality did not, as Nathan Newman and Cynthia Estlund joined us. Again, we provided the matchup of a policy expert, regular blogger (Nathan is both of these) and a law professor (Cynthia).

Nathan Newman, Policy Director for the Progressive States Network and a regular contributor to TPM Cafe, takes us back to earlier this century, relating the harrowing story of Southern slavery which persisted well into the 20th century. Newman tells us, “This southern gulag involved millions of black workers enslaved through a combination of capitalist employers, farm owners and a legal system that promised a brutal fate for anyone defying their de facto masters. And it is a key story for understanding the ultimate weakness of the overall U.S. labor movement, since having a deunionized Southern region was an essential tool in disciplining Northern workers who feared loss of jobs to a region without labor rights.” (See Southern Gulag: How 20th Century Slave Labor Undermined the Labor Movement.)

Cynthia Estlund, law professor at NYU, points out the importance of the choice we make on Election Day, if we care about the rights of workers. “Indeed, divisions are especially sharp over two major pillars of New Deal labor policy – the labor law’s regime for enabling workers to unionize and bargain collectively, and the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage and overtime protections – both of which were intended to secure for ordinary workers a fair share of the rewards of economic prosperity.” (See Labor Day Reflections on Election Day Decisions.) (As a nonprofit organization, Workplace Fairness does not endorse candidates, but we can give you publicly-available information about the candidates’ positions on workplace issues, and Cynthia does a great job of that in this post.)

On Thursday, September 4, the hit parade continued with best-selling workplace author Tom Jackson and Internet strategist and web producer Michael Whitney. Tom and Michael are from different generations, but they both understand the importance of treating workers with dignity.

Tom Jackson‘s exquisitely written piece, The Dignity of Work, is a wake-up call to everyone who works:

The erosion of human values at all levels, in mainstream work is so pervasive and heartless, that even to have a chance at rewarding work, you will need to reconsider everything you know about companies, jobs, work, skills, careers and personal mobility. And included in that is redefining your own self-definition: union member, hourly worker, factory worker, supervisor, manager or “I’ll do anything.”

Michael Whitney tells us about an exciting new ad campaign from American Rights at Work to educate the TV-watching public about the Employee Free Choice Act. I could tell you more about it, but why don’t you just watch it?

Friday, September 5 wraps up the first week with posts from Bruce Goldstein and Morra Aarons-Mele. Bruce is a lawyer and expert on farmworker issues, while Morra Aarons-Mele specializes in work redesign and management training for the flexible workplace after a career as an online strategist and blogger.

Bruce Goldstein
, executive director of Farmworker Justice, is readying us for an attack on the rights of farmworkers which could happen at any moment: “Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff…will announce extensive changes to the H-2A guestworker program, slashing wages and reducing worker protections for hundreds of thousands of our nation’s farmworkers.” Read “A Labor Day Attack on Farmworkers to find out what you can do, and how to keep informed about the progress of these changes.

Morra Aarons-Mele, who blogs about organizational change at Women and Work, reminds us that increased workplace flexibility is not just the job of employers and policy makers, but of ourselves as well. She says, “This Labor Day season, let’s think about how we can hold our leaders accountable to their promises to support more life-friendly work policies. But let’s also think about our role in managing work and life…the important work of cultivating a leisure ethic.”

With this blockbuster lineup, you don’t want to miss a single post. So check out our September archive and make sure you read every one. Don’t forget to leave us some comments! And you won’t want to miss posts from September 8 – 13, when we will feature Dr. David Madland & Karla Walter, Mark Harbeke, Bob Rosner, Anne Ladky, Chai Feldblum & Katie Corrigan, Paul Tobias, Melvina Ford, Phil Duran, Jason Gooljar, and Ellen Simon.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.