It is, and has always been, a low-key holiday among the American pantheon. If there are fireworks, they are small. If there is a parade, it is not nationally televised. The cookouts or picnics tend to be small ones. As a marker of the end of summer, Labor Day has a hint of melancholy. But the things it celebrates are things to treasure.
Labor Day started to thank American workers and to celebrate the labor movement, according to the Department of Labor. Come with me in the wayback machine. You already know this, but, “In 1880 Americans typically worked 12-hour days, 7-days a week. Kids as young as 5 or 6 could work in factories,” according to the Department of Labor website. A person who did this would not have what we call a life.
American people caused these customs to change. That’s the real thing Labor Day is about. Change often comes from ordinary people, not from their leaders.
But in the 21st century, a 40-hour workweek, something people made big efforts to create, is less and less common. From the low-wage worker juggling multiple jobs to the frequently on-call independent contractor, there are a lot of contemporary ways for workers not to have a life.
I got an interesting grass-roots view of labor protections being eroded during my purgatory—I mean my respectable career—in local government.
When I started, the cleaning workers were full employees. The maintenance workers were, too. We knew them. We knew Mr. Houston with his cap, his cigar, and his acerbic sense of humor. We knew he could fix anything, and that he did not suffer fools gladly. We knew Mr. Young with his ropy arms and his quiet demeanor and his devotion to duty. Let me tell you, the buildings were well maintained. They were clean. Mr. Young and Mr. Houston got time-and-a-half for overtime and they retired with a pension.
Somewhere along the line those things got outsourced. This is how it worked. The cleaners and custodians were transferred into other functions or, if they left, their jobs were abolished.
Then the job went out for bid to a contractor. A rule required that the lowest bid had to win, as long as the bidder could (on paper) meet the requirements.
Then the games began:
Contractor wins job with unrealistic low bid.
Contractor is happy.
Hires as few people as possible, because the bid was so low.
Pays them very little.
Works around the clock. The job gets done.
Soon, the job does not get done.
Contractor loses contract.
All subcontractors lose their jobs.
Everybody is unhappy.
Rinse and repeat.
Variations on the theme included hiring the commissioner’s nephew, in which case it took longer for the contractor to lose the contract.
The California Assembly just passed AB 1897, a bill to hold “companies accountable for serious violations of the rights of workers on their premises that are committed by their own labor suppliers,” according to ProPublica. The bill was inspired by a ProPublica series that documented unsafe conditions for temporary workers.
Teamster Union President Jim Hoffa said in a statement, “We are one step closer to preventing companies from engaging in a 21st century scam by claiming the men and women who do their work are not really employees but ‘temporary workers for labor contractors or agencies. This corporate shell game allows corporations to deny responsibility for basic worker rights like pay, benefits, and working conditions.”
It’s not just a corporate shell game. My own local government, which was well-versed in the Fair Labor Standards Act, played the same game. We had “temporary” part-time workers whose temp work lasted for decades.
They would not do it this way in Europe, or in Canada, I suspect.
I don’t like it when people extrapolate from home finance to larger finance, because they are not always comparable. But I am going to do it here.
I started trying to buy better but fewer clothes. It works for me, because stuff with good craftsmanship can last. Same principle should apply to hiring any kind of worker. If a roof or a driveway needs fixing, you don’t want to grab the cheapest fly-by-night tradesman from the flyer on your mailbox. You want to learn what is needed and pay what is fair.
Don’t try to circumvent labor laws just to save money. Check things out carefully. Hire good people. Pay for quality.
Did not know this column would be such a rant. Happy Labor Day, everyone, and thank you, workers, for all you do.