Thursday, September 23, 2010

OPINION: (Some) Workers of the No-Vacation Nation Catch A Break

The Pencil Warrior
By Dave Wheelock

Despite widespread and growing pessimism among the public about economic prospects, the number of travelers for the upcoming Labor Day weekend is expected to be considerably higher than in 2009. Although store aisles will no doubt soon return to the new standard of faintly echoing footsteps, and scads of unsold and foreclosed houses will remain vacant, we Americans are not going to let a little thing like economic ruin spoil our time away from work. Families will reunite, burgers will burn, and good times will be shared by millions on this, the unofficial last weekend of summer.
But wait – isn’t something missing? Like “why do we have this day off,” maybe? The answer holds more than a little irony. According to the U.S. Department of Labor website, the Labor Day holiday “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.” It’s fascinating how the language, carefully used, has the power to sanitize and appease.
What am I talking about? Just this: Labor Day as we know it today – without the formerly characteristic fiery speeches on the exploitation of workers, sans any overt official references to this country’s often bloody suppression of the labor movement - is a symbol and reflection of the victory of ownership over workers in this country.
Just ask any kid what Labor Day is about (or most adults, for that matter). Odds are s/he won’t be able to give you a coherent answer, let alone link the holiday to organized labor. Just as labor union membership has plunged nationally due to a systematic propaganda campaign and widespread illegal suppression, so too have Labor Day observations lost their focus.
But WCP (Widespread Clueless Picnics) are not my point. Exploitation is. The irony I referred to earlier has to do with the very notion of a day free from work. Even before the Industrial Revolution, those who worked for wages (including children) did so many hours a day, six or seven days a week. If workers around the world had not organized themselves into unions, gathering enough power to force owners to negotiate working conditions, few workers among us would have any days off, let alone three days in a row.
The Federal Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, continues as a double-edged sword. Although the FLSA created a national minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, and a compensation standard for time worked over the standard, precious few of those good intentions have withstood the tender mercies of a shamefully under-reported “organized ownership.” Broad classifications of “exempt” workers (those salaried, on commission, or mysteriously promoted to “supervisory” status) were amended to the Act by big business lobbyists to make millions of workers ineligible for the fair shake Congress promised. American workers today generally work more hours per week than their parents, and longer than their counterparts in other industrialized nations. And the minimum wage? A mockery of reality and source of profound national shame.
Well, at least we have our three-day Labor Day weekend, right? Not really. In fact the United States retains the dubious distinction of being the only advanced economy that does not, by law, guarantee its workers any paid vacation or holidays. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, one in four U.S. workers (25.5 million in 2000 alone) don’t get any paid vacation or holidays. Relying solely on the good graces of employers, U.S. workers average about 14 days of paid vacation per year.
This while 137 of the world’s 195 independent countries have some kind of annual leave legislation in place. Finland leads with 30 mandated paid vacation days per year with 14 paid national holidays, while the European Union requires all 27 member nations to provide all workers with four weeks of paid vacation. Even those supposed workaholics in Japan receive more time off work than us Americans.
In his book There Is Power in a Union Philip Dray opines that organized capital resisted organized labor so successfully because in contrast to England and Europe, American corporations had a head start before centralized government could take root in North America. As so starkly displayed in Western U.S. history neither unions nor state legislatures stood much chance against strongly entrenched business interests that had already taken control over the levers of power.
As an incremental start to relieving workers’ stress the Center for Economic Policy and Research advocates an amendment to the Federal Labor Standards Act that would mandate time-and-a-half payment for ALL holiday workers, including those currently classified as exempt. In addition, “A modest . . . mandate of 18 days paid leave . . . would substantially increase the number of paid days off for tens of millions of workers.”
Even in the current employer’s market, the future need not equal the past. Food for thought as you munch on your Labor Day hot dog.

Dave Wheelock, a collegiate sports administrator and coach, will work on salary over the Labor Day weekend. His opinions are not necessarily those of the Mountain Mail.

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