op-ed: The former Labor Day

  • By Bob Franken
  • Saturday, September 5, 2015 6:52pm
  • Opinion

Can we stop with the platitudes about celebrating the workers and face the reality of America? For starters, let’s do something about the name of this three-day weekend. Instead of Labor Day, let’s call it Plutocrat Day or maybe Oligarch Day. Let’s face it, fellow beachgoers, what we’re celebrating these days is fantasy.

No longer can we expect that hard work will pay off, that those who profit from it will share their rewards with those who put their noses to the grindstone for them. Instead, they’ll take away the grindstone when they merge their company with another and, in the name of “efficiency,” lay off by the thousands the people who made their corporation such a valuable commodity.

Labor movement? It’s moving, all right. Backward. In the late 1940s, more than one-third of the nonagricultural workforce was unionized. Last year, that had fallen to just over 11 percent, a large chunk of them government workers. Not only that, but among Republicans, anti-unionism is an article of faith, along with the religious faith that most of them want to impose on us.

We can celebrate labor with empty ceremonies and speeches all we want, but the dismal facts speak for themselves. With the decline of unions, we’ve seen the destruction of the country’s middle class. The statistics are well-known to all of us, and they add up to this: Just a few families, a very few, control most of the wealth in this country. The poorest half of the population owns 2.5 percent of the wealth. The top 1 percent owns 35 percent.

To be fair, there is a bit of an awakening. Campaigns to raise minimum wages to somewhat higher than slave pay have had some successes, as has a push to force companies to at least show the grotesque difference between the compensation paid to top executives and the average employee. In both cases, the “haves” are putting up a ferocious fight, threatening to cut jobs to maintain their caste system or even to relocate to some other country.

It’s not only the middle class that’s disappearing. One of the fundamental premises of our nation has always been the expectation that a family’s succeeding generation would do better. That upward mobility also has become a myth. Studies show that nearly three-quarters of those in the lowest class, the nation’s poor, will never achieve middle class. As for those in the middle, only 10 percent will move up to prosperity.

All of this is related. And it snuffs out the pretense of an American Dream. Our politicians, who might pass laws to make everyone contribute a fairer share, have been bought and paid for by the wealthy special interests who don’t want fairness. They’ve got it too good with unfairness.

The great bulk of us who could elect more responsive leaders have this bad habit of voting against our self-interest. In large part, it is because the wealthy provide the wherewithal for propaganda campaigns to confuse us.

They encourage us to mindlessly focus on emotional issues and trivialities instead of the economic policies that could turn things around if only we’d work to understand the complexities, like reducing the grip that “too big to fail” banks have. We’re also distracted by buffoonery, which replaces debate.

Donald Trump, for instance, bases his claim to the White House on the fact that he’s crassly entertaining. Many of those who are fed up with the way things have gone and how we’re all being conned by the wealthy few flock to Trump. He could be president, particularly since the Democrats, the party of labor, are dithering.

So sure, for those who even care what the day off is all about, let’s have a happy Plutocrat Day. At any rate, as happy as we can afford.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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