Labor Day is one of our most important holidays. Yet, not everyone wants us to recall that Labor Day is about working men and women who built America.
They built our dams, interstate highway system, electrical grid, shipping ports, airports, military bases, power plants. They serve in our government and teach our children, teenagers and college and university students. They provide high-quality health care and senior care services.
Most Montanans’ lives are rooted in labor. For example, my grandfather climbed up an endless ladder to work on the convex face of the unfinished Canyon Ferry Dam. My father, a union letter carrier, delivered the mail in Deer Lodge in subzero temperatures for decades, and my mother helped families in need as a social worker in Wolf Point. Hard rock miners in Butte rode makeshift elevators into the belly of the richest hill on earth. My childhood friend, a standout baseball pitcher, worked the lumber mill in Deer Lodge and lost his arm in a tragic workplace accident.
Our laborers have sacrificed a great deal in order to advance our country, state and employers. We must recognize that Labor Day is about honoring American working men and women and the tremendous, unheralded value that they add to our nation.
Without such recognition, we as a nation may find it easier to go along with the outsourcing of millions of blue collar jobs to China and other low-wage, permissive countries, as happened over the last several decades. We may tolerate the fact that CEOs make 300 times the salary of the average worker, when that metric used to be 40 times. We may ignore that the American worker has not gotten a pay raise, when normalized for inflation, in over 30 years, though the stock market and executive pay have soared.
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We may rationalize the unprecedented economic inequality in our nation and its impact on democracy. We may allow multinational corporations to control the debate over, and communicate only the benefits of, artificial intelligence (AI), without noting the tens of millions of American working men and women whom it may displace. We may condone the destruction of our unions and collective bargaining, and accept that the investor-class, through capital gains, pays a far lower tax rate than that of working families. We may, as well, decide to vote for those to whom the American worker is an afterthought.
To be upfront, the continuance of globalization and automation, especially AI, has the potential of placing even greater stress on America’s working families. That’s why Labor Day should take on even greater meaning as the new century progresses.
It should remind us, every late summer, that working men and women of both traditional and new industries must be given a seat — literally — at the corporate board of directors table. They must be granted a livable wage. They must be allowed to unionize and benefit from collective bargaining. They must be supported by a government that ceases to coddle multinational corporations, private equity managers, management consultants and foreign lobbyists. They must be granted access to affordable health care, even in times of unemployment, and equal pay regardless of gender or any other historically discriminatory characteristic. Their children must be able to access, not only college, but quality trade and vocational schooling.
Labor Day is about picnics and barbecue at the lake or in the backyard, as it ought to be. It also represents the very best of America, to which we owe a debt of gratitude: Working Americans.