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Towards a Louder Labor Day

For many years the May Day celebrants of other nations have dissed America's Labor Day, with its laid-back picnics and tame tributes to the laboring classes, as a flaccid imitation of a real workers' celebration. Amid mounting anger about joblessness, however, some are now calling to transform America's Labor Day celebration on September 5th into an energetic outpouring of worker solidarity and mass protest.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich makes a case for a day of protest in his recent blog (via Christian Science Monitor), "This Labor Day We Need Protest Marches Rather Than Parades.":

Labor Day is traditionally a time for picnics and parades. But this year is no picnic for American workers, and a protest march would be more appropriate than a parade.

Not only are 25 million unemployed or underemployed, but American companies continue to cut wages and benefits. The median wage is still dropping, adjusted for inflation. High unemployment has given employers extra bargaining leverage to wring out wage concessions.

All told, it's been the worst decade for American workers in a century. According to Commerce Department data, private-sector wage gains over the last decade have even lagged behind wage gains during the decade of the Great Depression (4 percent over the last ten years, adjusted for inflation, versus 5 percent from 1929 to 1939).

Big American corporations are making more money, and creating more jobs, outside the United States than in it. If corporations are people, as the Supreme Court's twisted logic now insists, most of the big ones headquartered here are rapidly losing their American identity.

CEO pay, meanwhile, has soared. The median value of salaries, bonuses and long-term incentive awards for CEOs at 350 big American companies surged 11 percent last year to $9.3 million (according to a study of proxy statements conducted for The Wall Street Journal by the management consultancy Hay Group.). Bonuses have surged 19.7 percent.

This doesn't even include all those stock options rewarded to CEOs at rock-bottom prices in 2008 and 2009. Stock prices have ballooned since then, the current downdraft notwithstanding. In March, 2009, for example, Ford CEO Alan Mulally received a grant of options and restricted shares worth an estimated $16 million at the time. But Ford is now showing large profits - in part because the UAW agreed to allow Ford to give its new hires roughly half the wages of older Ford workers - and its share prices have responded. Mulally's 2009 grant is now worth over $200 million.

The ratio of corporate profits to wages is now higher than at any time since just before the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, the American economy has all but stopped growing - in large part because consumers (whose spending is 70 percent of GDP) are also workers whose jobs and wages are under assault.

Perhaps there would still be something to celebrate on Labor Day if government was coming to the rescue. But Washington is paralyzed, the President seems unwilling or unable to take on labor-bashing Republicans, and several Republican governors are mounting direct assaults on organized labor (see Indiana, Ohio, Maine, and Wisconsin, for example).

So let's bag the picnics and parades this Labor Day. American workers should march in protest. They're getting the worst deal they've had since before Labor Day was invented - and the economy is suffering as a result.

United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard argues in his post at In These Times, that this Labor Day the emphasis should be on building hope. Parades are fine, Gerard argues contrary to Reich, but Labor Day 2011 should be an occasion to "Build esprit de corps among your fellow workers" and adds.

This is one day devoted to labor, to the middle class, to the majority. One day out of 365. On this holiday, everyone gives an obligatory nod to workers. So don't fret this Labor Day. Don't waste it away in apathetic doldrums. Don't let the minority rich and their purchased politicians take this celebration away from us too...We must develop some self-confidence before we start protesting. Achieving the change we want requires an uprising of hope and anger...

...Frances Fox Piven counsels in her book, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America that hope is crucial, that constructive change arises from the mix of hope and anger. In places like Libya and Egypt this Arab Spring, wealth proved insufficient to overpower the majority invigorated by hope and anger.

Gerard cites the "combination of anger and hopelessness" that "produces destruction and self-destruction" which exploded in London, clearly concerned that many American communities are ripe for similar unrest. He concludes, "So let's put some effort into fostering optimism. Let's strengthen each other this Labor Day. We must raise that hope before we organize Reich's protests."

Gerard may be right that some communities, where potentially explosive anger about joblessness and expanding income inequality is seething, are not prepared for disciplined nonviolent protests on such short notice. But recent protests in Madison and elsewhere indicate that other cities are well-prepared for Labor Day protest marches, and they can do some good. It's up to responsible community leaders to make the call.

Both Reich and Gerard are calling for making Labor Day an occasion for building solidarity and hope among working people, and that should happen everywhere, whether we have marches or parades. And either way, Labor Day should also serve as a nation-wide teach-in on what state and local elected officials have or have not done to create jobs and provide help for the unemployed and underemployed.