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Slimantics: Reflecting on the original meaning of Labor Day


Slim Smith



Monday is Labor Day, a holiday that really has no traditions associated with it. The day is more commonly used as a day to celebrate the approaching end of summer.  


At its inception in 1894, the holiday was intended to be a day set aside for Americans to celebrate the economic and social contributions of workers. President Grover Cleveland signed the bill officially making the first Monday of September as a federal holiday as a means of placating union members in the wake of a bitter strike against the Pullman Company.  


This year, the original intent of the holiday has emerged again, mainly because of two issues that have captured national attention. First, fast-food workers in 58 U.S. cities protested this week for what they call a "living wage" of $15 per hour and the right to form a union without fear of reprisal. Noting that many fast-food titans, companies such as KFC and McDonald's, have become some of the richest corporations in the world on the backs of a labor force of low-paid workers, the push for raises has become a legitimate social issue. 


The second issue at play that brings the original intent of Labor Day to the forefront involves the Affordable Care Act, which will require companies with 50 or more employees to provide health insurance. Opponents of the law known as Obamacare have said the measure will induce many small businesses to lay off employees or reduce worker's to less than 30 hours per week to avoid the requirement. Hence, it is called a job killer. 


Both issues should give us pause to consider an important question as our nation continues to struggle to recover from the Great Recession of 2008: "What obligations does a company have to its employees? 


Does an employee have a right to company-supported health insurance? What about pensions? What voice does an employee have in the workplace? Does the voter have a right to organize and negotiate terms of employment? Or should all rights concerning hours, pay and conditions be reserved for the employer alone? 


In Mississippi, a staunch "right to work" state dominated by conservative politics, workers' rights are very limited. It is no coincidence that Mississippi is first in the nation when it comes to the per-capita minimum-wage jobs and that is has the lowest per-capita income outside of West Virginia. 


In recent years, state leaders have lured companies to Mississippi through huge tax breaks and give-aways, always touting the state's "quality of workers," which is essentially code for "non-union workers." 


As a result, the industries that relocate to Mississippi can be assured of relatively cheap labor. Why outsource to India when you can outsource to Mississippi, after all? 


Of course, it's difficult to arouse much indignation in a state where the crushing weight of poverty makes those factory jobs a coveted thing. In Malaysia, a worker may work for a dollar a day simply because if he won't there are others who will. To a lesser degree, the same principle applies in Mississippi. Given the choice between competitive wages and benefits and the risk that a factory will find some other place to operate, it's hard to say no to those jobs, especially when the state's power structure is so closely aligned with those big companies. 


As it has always been in a capitalist economy, there is a fine balance between creating an environment where businesses can prosper and protecting the legitimate interests of workers. Mississippi has never seemed much interested in finding that balance, unfortunately, which is why the state still operates under what amounts to a feudal economic system and the disparity between the haves and have-nots continues to swell. That is why there are few states with a smaller middle class than Mississippi. 


It is also a terrible drain on our economy. Any economist will tell you: low-paid workers make terrible consumers. 


The popular distraction, groomed and promoted by our business-cozy elected officials, is that the real problem is too many lazy people who simply won't work. It's hard to generate much sympathy for that group of people. Yet for all those who we condemn as welfare moochers, companies like Walmart, whose low wages and limited hours force many of its workers to rely on federal subsides to make ends meet, gets a pass. Walmart is one of the most profitable companies in the world, mind you.  


And what of the fast-food workers? In the past, many of those workers were teens and young adults, who worked those jobs for spending money or just to get a start in the working world. That demographic, heavily influenced by the Great Recession, has changed. Today, the average age of a fast-food worker is 29. These people are trying to make a living. They are having a tough go of it.  


On a more personal note, my mother worked in a garment factory for almost 30 years. As a child, I remember her coming home, bone-weary, sitting down at the kitchen table and unwrapping the tape she used to cover her blood-drenched fingers. To maximize her earnings, she worked "production," which meant she went far beyond her daily quota of work. For each extreme garment, she got a small bonus. She didn't get rich, though. But it did keep food on the table. 


The company she worked for was owned by one of the most prominent families in town. They got rich on the backs of people like my mother. This family became so rich that they started "giving back" to the community in the form of building parks or contributing the charities. In this way, they became not only wealthy, but much-loved. 


Meanwhile, my mother unwrapped the blood-soaked bandages from her fingers every day, without complaint, mainly because there was no one to complain to. 


When she retired, she got a $25 gift certificate. 


The family that owned the factory is still rich and still morally bankrupt.  


I think of this when I hear some company that is threatening to cut back hours to avoid lawful obligations. I have no sympathy for them. Those tactics may be perfectly legal and even endorsed by conservatives, but it is morally wrong. It tells me all I need to know about just how little the company cares about its employees. 


I am fortunate to work for a company that does care about its employees, a company that provides health insurance for its employees even though it is not required to do so. 


That's the kind of company I want to do business with. 


That is also why I won't shop at Walmart and why, if I become aware of any company that decides to cut employee hours to avoid providing benefits, I will make every effort to do my business with that company's competitor. 


This Labor Day, I'll eat some barbecue and celebrate the approach end of the summer. 


But I will also think about people like my mother and her blood-drenched fingers.


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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