“Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” US Dept of Labor.
Our country would not be strong if it did not have an active, engaged and well-educated workforce. Yet, surprisingly there are often times in our countries history when attempts have been made to weaken the workforce. As Gordon Lafer points out in a 2013 report in the Economic Policy Institute (1), “initiatives aimed at lowering labor standards, weakening unions, and eroding workplace protections for both union and non-union workers,” are not uncommon.
SkilIndeed, few people would claim to be ignorant that America was once riddled with sweatshops and unsafe factories that forced long work weeks, often 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. Millions of these workers were children, and tens of thousands died in unsafe conditions. Notorious events such as the Port of Chicago Disaster, the Halifax Explosion and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire are just some of the disasters that happened back in the day before fire regulation and safe worker codes were enforced. Fatal workplace accidents still happen today, but at much lower numbers. In 2016 the US Department of Labor, states that “Nationwide, a total of 5,190 fatal work injuries were recorded in 2016 (2).”
Today we are blessed with safety laws and with some of the lowest unemployment ever. It seems that American workers should feel happy and prosperous. Certainly, there are many who are able to claim a happy and healthy lifestyle. So do we need to worry about the rights of workers? Here a few things to think about.
- Slavery: Most people today believe that slavery ended back in the 1800s, but sadly there are actually more people living in slavery in the world today than at any time in the history of the world. According to the United Nations 40.3 million people are enslaved and 1 in 4 victims of slavery are children (3). In the United States of American it is estimated that more than 400,000 people live in slavery. Many of the individuals enslaved are trafficked into the country and include people who are used for forced labor as well as sex trafficking (4).
- Pay Inequity: While women do make choices, such as starting a family and taking time off to be with their family, that limit their time in the workforce and pull own their wages, it is still accurate to cite that white women workers earn an average of .78 on the dollar of white male workers, black women workers earn .64, Native American women earn .65 and Latina women earn nearly ½ or .54. The US is the only country that does not mandate paid leave for new parents. Indeed companies in the US often penalize women for having children, although evidence suggests that men are not equally penalized, indeed they may even receive extra incentives, such as a pay raise, for becoming a father. (5)
- Underemployment: A common frustration among many people is that we have very low unemployment, but there are still people who seem to need help. Why? Part of the problem is that unemployment doesn’t measure individuals who are out of work for reasons such as to have a child, go to school or because they cannot find work that matches their skills and qualifications. Other problem is underemployment. Individuals working jobs that the are over qualified for or who cannot find full time work. For instance, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development in 2017 found, “New state data show that Minnesota employers have plenty of job vacancies, but more than half of them are part-time, temporary and seasonal — which might explain one reason companies are having a hard time filling them.” Indeed, according to the study, nearly 60% of the unfilled jobs in Minnesota are part time. (6)
- Work Hours: While work hours for American’s have come way down from the days of sweatshops in most cases, Americans still work more hours than people in most other industrialized countries. According to the ILO, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers (7/8).”
- Skills Gap: Like many places in the world, our country is also plagued by a skills gap. There are jobs available but not enough skilled employees to fill them. The skills gap is particularly well defined in hands-on trades such as nursing, plumbing and manufacturing. For many years there have been warning signs that not enough young workers are being channeled into these industries which are often stigmatized as unappealing or low-paying. For many years our schools have promoted the idea of creating a workforce that will drive innovation and scientific research, while ignoring the technical skills needed to create those innovations. Opportunity Nation has been exploring how this gap between educational institution goals and the goals of youth have led to nearly 6 million young adults with no clearly defined work path (9).
The topic of labor and workers in the United States is complex. It is difficult to get a true understanding of our needs and there is a strong call to simply leave the shape of labor in the United States to the whims of the market. Surely if there is a need for workers, the market will quickly deal with that. However, it has never been very effective to ignore a problem, nor is it effective to employ wishful thinking and simply hope that a problem is nothing more than the ill feelings of a few.