Labor Day is different this year. Usually, Labor Day is a time to remember that this holiday on the calendar pays tribute to our country’s workers and reminds us of the great changes that unions helped bring into our social and economic lives.
This year is different because of the orchestrated attacks on labor unions and public employees nationwide and because workers are devalued in our current economic debate.
Virtually no attention is paid to workers in the budget-cutting scenarios on the federal or Texas level. Cutting jobs from a budget is devastating to families, and there is strong consensus among economists these days that eliminating public jobs damages the economy rather than helps it.
Laying thousands of teachers off as a result of Texas’ new budget hurts teachers and the economy, and it has a rippling effect on other people’s jobs. It also harms students.
Texas had a $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund, of which lawmakers used about one-third to shore up a hole in the 2010-11 budget. How much better off would the Texas economy and its schools be if they had used two-thirds, or $6.3 billion, of the fund?
At this point, we are in more of a tsunami than a “rainy day.”
The Texas unemployment rate just jumped from 8.2 percent to 8.4 percent (the highest in 24 years) because of the recent loss of public sector jobs.
Nationwide, some 14 million Americans are unemployed.
There are more than four jobless workers for every job opening. Increasing numbers of children (more than 15 million) and families live in poverty. Gaps in wealth and income are growing between the relatively affluent few and the many who are struggling.
Hand-in-hand with the devaluation of workers is the scapegoating by legislators in other states regarding collective bargaining rights for educators, police, firefighters and other public employees. Somehow workers are blamed for not balancing the economy on their backs rather than companies benefitting from massive profits and tax breaks.
Warren Buffett drove home this point in a column in The New York Times earlier this month: “Stop coddling the super-rich.”
Federal law requires detailed “environment impact” statements for construction projects “significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” We need laws that require legislators to prepare and adopt worker impact statements before reducing public budgets. They should also be obligated to search the budget for other places to cut before eliminating or reducing jobs. And, in some cases, raising taxes is more in tune with shared sacrifice than taking away people’s jobs or driving them to jobs with ever lower pay and fewer benefits.
Labor Day came into being to honor working people who have struggled and continue to struggle to make our democracy vibrant and strong. Organized labor brought us the five-day week, overtime pay, minimum wage, workplace safety protections and employer-provided health insurance.
Most Americans don’t remember how hard, long and even bloody the struggle was — how many people went to jail, lost their jobs and died. The justice of its goals even attracted support from some of the nation’s religious communities.
Many of those religious communities are reminding us again this year of the growing inequities suffered by workers and their loss of dignity and respect.
This Labor Day, we should pause and reflect on these matters and redirect our democracy to greater justice.
Harrington is director of the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project and an adjunct professor in the School of Law.