Labor Day evolved as a celebration of the American worker, but especially of the achievements of organized labor. The minimum wage, retirement security, even Labor Day weekend itself – these were triumphs of workers who fought employers for a bigger share and pushed Congress and the states to enact worker protections.
Today, amid growing concerns about income inequality in America, there’s been an uptick in public support for organized labor. In politics the narrative of working people vs. greedy plutocrats still resonates strongly.
Even so, the contours of the US labor market have changed dramatically since the industrial age. An increasingly competitive economic environment has put a premium on flexibility, not stability, so many employers have abandoned any presumption that workers should stay for decades on end – and are scaling back expectations accordingly. Tellingly, the United Auto Workers, which once embodied the dream of prosperity for all, agreed with Detroit’s big three automakers to enact a two-tier wage system in 2007. New hires in the serially troubled industry now receive $20 an hour less in salary and benefits than veteran workers with similar duties.
Implicitly, the two-tier system has emerged across the broader economy: Older workers may have pensions; younger ones don’t. Meanwhile, many new jobs are temporary gigs. Academics who aspire to the tenure track are landing adjunct positions instead. In the legal profession, once a safe haven for the articulate but vocationally undecided, recent graduates may face years of low-paying contract labor. And in certain volatile industries, such as entertainment and media, the going rate for entry-level work has been bid down literally to nothing. Some commentators fear the very concept of a steady job is a goner – that Americans’ future lies in driving Uber cars and renting their homes out on Airbnb for extra cash.
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The situation surely isn’t quite that dire, but policy makers and worker advocates still need to tailor their efforts to a rapidly changing labor market. In Massachusetts this summer, ostensibly pro-labor legislative leaders couldn’t fully grasp the hardship that noncompete agreements pose for non-unionized white-collar workers. But that could change. Similarly, future federal lawmakers and securities regulators might seek new forms of corporate governance that encourage firms to steer more of their earnings to workers rather than shareholders – as, for instance, Arthur T. Demoulas has done at privately held Market Basket. And organized labor might someday play a greater role in directly providing the retirement security that employers once offered.
At the least, the public dialogue about the workforce and the workplace needs to be expanded and updated.