by Marilyn Watkins
For those of us lucky enough to get weekends off, it’s tempting to use Labor Day as a time to enjoy the last of summer and escape the relentlessly bad news: natural disasters made worse by human arrogance and unregulated development; an economic boom that enriches some, but leaves too many struggling; the divides of race and class and religion that grow wider with every police shooting and presidential Tweet.
During last week’s solar eclipse, I caught a momentary glimpse of another America. I happened to be on a layover changing planes in Charlotte, NC, just outside the band of totality. For 45 minutes or so, a growing crowd watched in awe as the sun slowly disappeared – business travelers and tourists, pilots and food court workers, flight crews and wheelchair attendants, young and old, of every race and background and style of dress. Only a few of us had eclipse glasses, but everyone shared, eager for all to be included in that experience. As the grandeur of the universe revealed itself, the usual divisions of social status melted away and we could see our common humanity and equal worth.
Congress established the Labor Day holiday during an earlier era of intense conflict over the character and future of our nation. Labor union leaders began promoting a special day to celebrate the contributions of workers to the nation’s prosperity in the 1880s, a time of dire poverty, opulent wealth, and bloody conflicts over deplorable working conditions. Across a large swath of the country – not just the South – Jim Crow laws institutionalized racial apartheid at work and throughout the fabric of daily life.
Here in Seattle, white mobs drove most Chinese residents out of the city in 1886. In 1894, when a strike that started peacefully at the Chicago Pullman factory turned into a general strike of railroad workers, President Cleveland sent in federal troops. In the course of breaking the strike, the troops killed a number of workers. Congress passed Labor Day and Cleveland endorsed it as a politically motivated gesture of peace.
We’ve made real progress since that time, thanks to the courageous activism of men and women who fought for better working conditions and basic rights.
At the dawn of the 20th century, workplaces were mostly unregulated and often dangerous. Until the New Deal legislation of the 1930s, child labor was commonplace in the U.S. and there was no minimum wage or right to unionize. Until the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, jobs were often explicitly segregated by race and gender.
Seattle and Washington State now have some of the most progressive labor laws in the country, with a higher minimum wage, a right to paid sick days, fair scheduling in Seattle, and in a couple years, paid family and medical leave for every worker in the state. Coalitions of community groups, labor unions, and working people came together with elected leaders to develop and enact these standards. And our local economy is booming, with faster job and population growth than the rest of the country.
By 2013, King County gained back the 80,000 jobs lost to the Great Recession and over the last four years has added 160,000 more. While high-paying computer-related jobs are increasing the fastest, other occupations up and down the earnings scale are gaining, including in health, education, retail, and food service. Aerospace manufacturing – led by Boeing – is the major sector shedding jobs.
But we are still plagued by a growing wealth divide, with race, gender, and social class too often determining people’s opportunities in life. Since 2008, almost all the wage growth has gone to those in the top 20 percent. Thanks to city and state minimum wage laws, those with the lowest wages have also seen modest increases above the rate of inflation. But hourly wages for Washington men in the lower 60% of the earnings spectrum are below what they were when Ronald Reagan became president, once adjusted for inflation. Women’s wages did generally increase over those decades as overt discrimination lessened, but still lag far behind men’s. Now a mid-earning woman in Washington makes 80 percent of a man’s hourly wage, compared to just 60 percent in 1980.
Racial wage gaps are larger still. According to American Community Survey data, Black men who work fulltime in Washington are paid 73 percent of what White men make, Native American and Pacific Islander men about two-thirds, and Latino men just half. Women of color are paid even less.
In our booming economy, those wage gaps become chasms of experience and opportunity for individual workers and their children far into the future, as rents skyrocket, the price of childcare and other necessities increase, and congestion adds to transportation time and costs.
We can do better. This Labor Day, let’s remember to celebrate the dignity of all labor and acknowledge our mutual dependence on the work of everyone in our complex economy. And let’s pledge to continue to build a society where all workers have the opportunity to share in the prosperity they help create.
Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center focused on building and economy that works for everyone.