Once upon a Labor Day

Once upon a time—1882 to be exact—a new national holiday was created to recognize the contributions of labor unions to America’s manufacturing muscle.   The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City, filled with floats representing the leading unions of the day, followed by speeches, bands, and picnics.

My, but times have changed.

Labor unions aren’t an endangered species, but they’re headed in that direction.  They peaked in 1945, when a little more than one in three non-agricultural workers carried union cards.  Today it’s one in ten.

Back in the day, when workplace safety laws were nearly nonexistent and employees (including children) were routinely exploited by their bosses, the unions helped forge what we now consider to be a modern work environment of safety laws, paid holidays, pensions, and relatively inexpensive health insurance.

But that was then.  Today’s unions are often regarded as monopolistic, strong armed bullies.   Most conservative economists say they’re an idea whose time has gone, good for nothing but helping the Democratic Party wreck free enterprise.

As we celebrate another Labor Day, it’s worth considering the changes that are raining down on the American worker.

There’s no question that the Digital Revolution is to our age what the Industrial Revolution was to the late 19th century.  We are fundamentally changing the way we think, live and work.  The only difference in the level of social disruption between the two “revolutions” is that this one is burning through the world at an exponentially faster rate.

In its wake lie the 5.6 million American manufacturing jobs eliminated since 2000—jobs that helped provide the foundation of the American middle class.  Politicians may argue that America’s job losses are due to greedy CEO’s shipping jobs to other countries, but the Financial Times reports those relocated jobs account for only 15% of all the jobs lost.  The other 85% were erased by automation.


Our reaction as a nation has not been noble.  Browbeating company CEO’s to bring back a few of those 15% of lost jobs while virtually ignoring the reality of the 85% of jobs lost to automation is just plain dumb.  You know as well as I do that most of those lost jobs aren’t coming back.  Too many displaced workers are now waiting for something that’s not going to happen, while we drag our feet on the massive training that needs to occur for the jobs of the future.

Where does all this leave today’s young workers?   Adrift.  Our young people aren’t dumb.  They see that when the annual salary of your neighborhood CEO is tied to the company’s annual stock price, his sense of long-term responsibility to his employees and community may be slightly compromised. Programs to strengthen long-term growth aren’t likely to survive if they conflict with year-end bonuses for the boss.   Robots can reward investors more than expensively trained workers who get sick and take vacations.

So it’s probably no surprise that workers are repaying their employers with the same loyalty they’ve received.   A 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics report says the average American stays at his job 4.4 years—except for the young Millennials, for whom the number is cut squarely in half.

In America’s new post-loyalty, post-benefits labor force, it’s easy to see confusion and turmoil.  Our shrinking middle class is slowly eating away at the center that holds the economic and employment structure in place.  The slow American slide towards becoming a nation of only have’s and have not’s will provide the sternest economic test our country has yet faced.

We will survive, of course, but only if we come together.  The economic forces shaping the American labor market will continue their inexorable march toward the fully digital world.  We will need to re-think nearly every aspect of employment, and the education needed to achieve it, and then work together to make it a reality.   This endless head-in-the-sand hoping that the clock will turn back is naïve and dangerous.  We have a job to do, and we’d better roll up our sleeves, not as Republicans and not as Democrats, but as clear-eyed Americans, figure it out, and get to work.

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