- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

This Labor Day, with wages for many workers stagnant, there are plenty of dour prognostications and pessimism to go around, some of them justified. “America’s workers are anxious about the nation’s economy and do not hold out much hope for the future,” blares a Labor Day report by the AFL-CIO. Last year, the AFL-CIO declared a crisis in “job quality.” In a Boston Globe column titled “The New Proletariat,” Robert Kuttner writes: “This Labor Day, wage-workers have little to celebrate. Though unemployment is down, job insecurity is up. Health and pension benefits are dwindling. Weakened worker bargaining power is reflected in flat earnings.” He concludes that on Labor Day we should give “a hard look at the values that structure our society.”

The underlying economic data that the AFL-CIO and Mr. Kuttner point to are real: Wages for many American families have stagnated. As we’ve reported previously, income has been more or less flat for a large portion of American families the last five years. The healthy 3.8 percent economic growth in 2004 hasn’t yet translated into significant income gains for average Americans.

But the average American is an eternal optimist. Indeed, it’s patently wrong to say that Americans “do not hold out much hope for the future.” In fact, 4-in-5 Americans are happy about their jobs, to judge by the best polling data on the subject. Additionally, the proportion who are worried they will lose their jobs hasn’t changed since the salad days of the Internet boom in 1997. In short, Americans are resilient and optimistic, much more so than Mr. Kuttner and the AFL-CIO give them credit for.

Recently, the American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman released a study compiling polling data on American attitudes toward work and their jobs that shows remarkable continuity in workers’ opinions about their jobs, and, in some cases, improvements in the happiness respondents report. Although people are worried in the abstract, when it comes to their own particular jobs, the picture is one of optimism. That optimism stretches in some cases back to the 1940s and gives the lie to the glass-is-half-empty crowd.

The Gallup Organization has been polling employed people on job satisfaction since 1949. Its poll this month found that 42 percent of Americans called themselves “completely satisfied” and another 44 percent called themselves “somewhat satisfied.” Only 14 percent called themselves “somewhat dissatisfied” or “completely dissatisfied.” The numbers on this question are remarkably consistent over time. Back in 1972, Gallup found nearly the same numbers: 49 percent reported that they were “very satisfied”; 37 percent called themselves “moderately satisfied”; and 14 percent were “a little dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied.” A March 2005 CBS News/New York Times survey found that 47 percent of respondents are “very satisfied” and 41 percent are “somewhat satisfied.” In 1995, the same surveyers found roughly the same proportions. About four-fifths of employed Americans are happy with their jobs.

In other words, if the country is facing a crisis in “job quality,” someone should tell the 86 percent of workers who report that they are more or less happy with their jobs.

It would be easy to make too much of these numbers; all they show is that, concretely, people like their present jobs. Are Americans more worried about losing their jobs than before, as some assert? Not according to the polling data. In 1997, 20 percent of respondents to a Harris Interactive poll said they were worried about being laid off and 15 percent worried their hours would be cut back. In 2004, the same percentage worried about being laid off and 14 percent worried about hourly cutbacks. Gallup found that the number of people who are “completely satisfied” with their job security actually increased since 1989, from 45 percent “completely satisfied” to 54 percent in 2004 (some of these graduated from the “somewhat satisfied” category, which dropped from 42 percent to 28 percent). So when it comes to layoffs, we’re about as worried as we were during a boom period.

The outlook of the American worker, as much as his productivity, is surely something important to celebrate this Labor Day. It just so happens that Labor Day is predicated on optimism about democratic capitalism in America. It has always rejected those who said American capitalism was doomed.

In late 19th-century America, Labor Day originated as a celebration of the working man, and, significant in those days, as an explicit rejection of the gloom and doom of international socialism. On the first Labor Day, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, the Knights of Labor organized a march and picnic in New York City to honor working people and their accomplishments. They didn’t choose May Day, however, the favored holiday of socialists, anarchists and rioters, the way many other industrialized countries did. Today that can be viewed as a collective vote of confidence for capitalism.

The idea for Labor Day is credited to Matthew Maguire, a machinist and secretary of New York’s Central Labor Union, and Peter Maguire, a Philadelphian and general-secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, two of the most unheralded of the fathers of American democratic capitalism. Labor Day caught on quickly: Oregon made it a holiday in 1887 and Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York quickly followed. Labor Day went national in 1894 by an act of Congress.

Labor Day was a symbolic victory for both labor and capitalists; it honored the working man while helping contain radical ideology. It’s true that industrialists and their supporters initially opposed Labor Day, but management buckled — in time a great service to itself, to labor and the country — in order to resist the efforts of socialists, anarcho-syndicalists and others to get the United States to celebrate May Day. An American May Day would have lent symbolic aid to people who wanted socialism to take root in the United States. A compromise was reached to prevent that.

Labor joined with management to oppose efforts by the International Workingmen’s Association and other radical groups that wanted a May celebration as a small but symbolically important part of their campaign for Marxism and radicalism in America. The critical step came from President Grover Cleveland, who ended up supporting a September Labor Day in part to squelch possible re-enactments of Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket riots, which happened in May.

By cementing a September Labor Day, Cleveland ensured that the United States would commemorate labor in a pro-capitalist way. It ended up mostly alone in that effort: In the century after, hardly any industrialized democracies followed the American lead on Labor Day. Only Canada celebrates its Labour Day in September and traces the holiday’s roots to the same Knights of Labor origins. Europeans celebrate on May 1, while Australia varies by territory and New Zealand celebrates in October.

Over the years, some have failed to see — perhaps strained themselves not to see — the uniquely American character of our Labor Day. “Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country,” Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor and a towering figure in organized labor’s early days, once said. “All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day … is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”

In one sense Gompers was right: Labor Day is unique and it’s universal. It’s not about the glory of any single man or nation. But in another sense, he was wrong: Labor Day’s unique American origins are uniquely pro-capitalist. Our Labor Day was predicated upon a rejection of the gloomy prognosticators. It is a statement of optimism about the American form of capitalism.

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