Some things to think about, as you celebrate Labor Day:

In 1955, nearly 35% of US wage and salary workers were represented by unions. The country was coming out of a recession, then, and US government — under a Republican president — was pouring billions of federal dollars into massive infrastructure programs and pursuing a common-sense regulatory agenda; the hard times of the 1930s was still strong in the memory of most of our legislators, and they were determined not to repeat the mistakes that led to the Great Depression. The result was one of the longest and most transformative economic booms in our history.

In 2011, the number of wage and salary workers with union representation dropped below 10%. In the last twenty years, the minimum wage, has in real terms, actually declined; the real value of the minimum wage has gone up by 21%, but the cost of living has increased by three times that amount, leaving low-wage workers falling further and further behind. It’s not because there’s no work getting done; overall productivity in the US has been boosted 80% since 1979, while income and wages overall have stagnated. (The income of the top 1% of earners, however, has increased by 240%.)

And in the face of this, there are voices — loud voices — insisting that the only way out our current economic slump is to roll back reforms and regulations, to disempower consumers and employees, to strip the power of collective bargaining from those lucky few who still have it. It is the unions, we are told, who are the real villains here. It is the unions, we are told, who are holding the recovery hostage. This in a country that still, alone among first-world economies, has no legal mandate to require employers to provide paid maternity leave, paid vacations, or even guaranteed time off each week.

(This article at Mother Jones has much more, including links to sources for all the stats quoted above. )

Here’s some music to listen to as you contemplate that, and decide for yourself whether it’s a tragedy or a farce.

Peter Blegvad — Something Else (Is Working Harder) from Just Woke Up (1995)
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band — The Hammer Song from Framed (1974)
Richard Thompson + Danny Thompson — Sweetheart on the Barricade from Industry (1997)
Vernon Reid et al. — Work Song from Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus (1992)
Deborah Holland — I Am a Union Woman (Join the CIO) from The Panic Is On: Songs from the Great Depression (1997)
The Godfathers — Birth, School, Work, Death from Birth, School, Work, Death (1988)
Big Country — Steeltown from Steeltown (1984)
The Dubliners — Joe Hill re-released on 20 Greatest Hits (1996)
Stan Ridgway — The Overlords from Partyball (1991)
Oingo Boingo — Capitalism from Only A Lad (1981)
Wall of Voodoo — Dark as a Dungeon from Seven Days in Sammystown (1985)
The Police — Dead End Job re-released on Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings (1993)
Howard Tate — Chain Gang from Reaction (1969)
Todd Rundgren — Honest Work from A Cappella (1985)
Dire Straits — Industrial Disease from Love Over Gold (1982)
Rush — Working Man from Rush (1974)
The Church — Grind from Gold Afternoon Fix (1990)
The House Band — Pharaoh from The World Is A Wonderful Place: Songs of Richard Thompson (1996)
The Golden Palominos featuring Jack Bruce — (Something Else Is) Working Harder from Blast of Silence (1986)


Or download the full mix (82 minutes, suitable for your CD-burning needs).

About the Author

Jack Feerick

Critic at Large

Jack Feerick — editor, proofreader, freelance know-it-all, and three-time Jeopardy! champion — lives with his family somewhere in upstate New York, where he plays in a rock 'n' roll band and occasionally runs his mouth on local radio. You can listen to more of his work on Soundcloud, if you like.

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