Why We Still Need Labor Day, and I Don't Mean Barbecues

Labor Rights Today

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Walmart workers strike in Florida in September, 2013. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Now that we have gathered for Labor Day festivities, it’s important to recognize that many of the protections for workers that the holiday is meant to commemorate have been slowly rolled back or skirted over the last few decades. Let’s take a look at three reasons why continuing to fight for labor rights should be a part of how we celebrate Labor Day and honor victories past.

Minimum Wage is Not a Living Wage, Keeps Many Families Below Poverty Line

When you account for inflation, federal minimum wage is lower today than it was during the 50s, 60s, 70s, and much of the 80s.

It peaked in 1968 at what would amount to $10.68 per hour today. In 2014, federal minimum wage is just $7.25 per hour. At this rate, the annual income of full-time workers is just under $15,000—several thousand dollars below the poverty line for a family of four. This poses  widespread social problems because across the country, just twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have state minimums that are higher than the federal rate.

In a recent study, Dr. Amy Glasmeier of MIT found that minimum wage does not provide a “living wage,” or the amount required to actually survive given the cost of living in one’s community, for most U.S. families. Glasmeier calculated that the median living wage for a family of four is $51,224, and families with two full-time working adults earning minimum wage may fall as much as $30,000 short.

Want to know what the living wage is in your area? Use Dr. Glasmeier’s handy calculator to find out.

You can learn more about the struggle to survive as a low-wage worker by reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s landmark book, Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America.

The Scourge of “Flexible,” Contract, and Not-Quite-Full-Time Labor

There has been a significant shift among U.S. employers from full-time to part-time work across a wide range of employment sectors.

This is bad for workers, because part-timers typically do not receive any kind of healthcare benefits, and are paid less per hour than their full-time counterparts. Within the retail and wholesale sector, a leader for jobs in the U.S., the shift from full to part-time has been swift and dramatic. Speaking to a reporter for the New York Times in 2012, Burt P. Flickinger, III, managing director of a retail consulting firm, explained that retailers have inverted their staff, from 70 to 80 percent full-time two decades ago, to 70 percent or higher part-time today. The not-quite-full-time nature of work at Walmart and fast food chains, and the irregular schedules that make parenting difficult have been core issues for striking workers and activists over the last couple of years.

This trend is seen even among college and university professors. About 50 percent of professors work at part-time status, and about 70 percent of them (some full-timers included) are on short-term contracts. Few of these “adjunct” faculty receive benefits or a living wage, and they rarely have job security beyond a 3-month period. A report released in January 2014 by the House Committee on Education and Workforce that surveyed over 800 adjuncts across 41 states confirms these widespread trends.

The Death of the 40-Hour Work Week

The 40-hour work week was a labor rights battle that played out for more than a century and culminated in the of 1938. But, in today’s employment landscape of low-wage work, insufficient minimum wages, and inhumane productivity pressures on most workers, the 40-hour work week is nothing but a dream. Dr. Glasmeier found through her study that two adults earning minimum wage would have to work three full-time jobs between them in order to support a family of four.

In this kind of low-wage employment, single mothers have it even worse. Glasmeier writes, “A single-mother with two children earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour needs to work 125 hours per week, [emphasis added] more hours than there are in a 5-day week, to earn a living wage.” In mid- and high-wage sectors too, employees face peer and institutional pressure to put work above all else, and many work hours far in excess of the 40-hour week, at the expense of relationships with family, friends, and the health of their communities.

Glasmeier's report and other statistical evidence make it clear that the fight for the rights, dignity, and financial health of workers is far from over.