Historians tell us Labor Day got its real start in 1882 New York, when the city’s unions decided to band together for a massive show of strength.
They declared that Sept. 5 should be proclaimed “a general holiday for the workingmen in this city,” according to a U.S. Department of Labor history of the holiday. They planned for a parade and a festival, but worried a bit about the turnout. The event was scheduled on a Tuesday, so most workers would have to take the day off without pay in order to take part.
They needn’t have worried, according to Labor — thousands of workers showed up. Jewelers and bricklayers, carpenters and joiners, all marching and picnicking to celebrate their combined, and critical, contributions.
But tomorrow, while many of us are taking a much-welcomed day of rest, those most squeezed by our economy will be hard at work. Flipping our burgers, ringing up our purchases, dressing and feeding our elders and otherwise taking care of us in ways we’ve come to demand.
In fact, we continue to see a steady increase in low-paying, benefit-deprived service sector employment, according to The Iowa Policy Project’s annual “State of Working Iowa” report, released Friday.
“Sustained losses in key middle-income sectors — such as manufacturing and public service — have not been accompanied by real opportunities elsewhere,” author Colin Gordon was quoted as saying in a release.
Maybe that’s why, as Gordon found, Iowa’s low-wage jobs increasingly are being filled by workers who have at least some college under their belts. They’re pulling in near-starvation wages:
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this country’s 4.5 million retail sales worker make about $20,990 per year. Add to that, the 4.1 million food and beverage workers who pull in just over $18,000 and another 2.3 million waiters and waitresses who earn about the same.
This country’s 1.5 million nursing aides earn an average of $24,010.
Add to those industries, millions more child care workers, bartenders, housekeepers, manicurists, coffee shop baristas and other low-wage professionals who make up this country’s working poor.
Their hours often change from week to week; their schedules frequently arranged to ensure they put in time just shy of limits that would trigger worker protections like benefits and leave.
That’s one thing if we’re talking about part-time, casual workers trying to pull in a little fun money for a family that’s already in the black. But many of today’s service workers depend on their wages to survive.
Their dissatisfaction is palpable — last week, fast food workers in 60 cities organized a walkout in order to draw national attention to pay issues. Similar complaints can be heard from other low-paying industries increasingly staffed by heads of households, including parents struggling to provide a decent standard of living for their kids.
Most arguments against higher wages and more protections for low-wage workers hinge on the idea that these industries must be lean (or stingy, depending on which side of the paycheck you’re on) in order to keep services affordable for the rest of us. The idea that our choice is between low-paying jobs, or no-paying jobs or manicures the average middle class family couldn’t hope to afford.
But we pay, anyway, in supports that, increasingly, are being used to shore up substandard wages. Food assistance, reduced-price lunch, help with clothes and heat and rent. Emergency room care that’s the last resort for workers whose companies scrimp on benefits in order to improve the bottom line.
The real bottom line is that it’s time to take another look at rules and protections for low-wage workers. When working families can’t meet basic human needs, one way or another, we all pay.
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