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Remember, protect the American worker

Given how the holiday is celebrated, it may come as a surprise to some that Labor Day arose not from a desire to rest but out of acts of protest.

The discontent of workers over low pay and poor work conditions in the late 1800s spawned rallies and demonstrations that often became violent and bloody. The average American worked 12-hour days, seven days a week and barely made enough to live on. Children as young as 5 worked in mills, factories and mines for minuscule wages. Children and adults alike often endured extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.

In the most memorable protest, the Haymarket Riot of 1886, several Chicago police officers and workers were killed. Four years earlier, the first Labor Day parade was held in New York City as more than 10,000 poured into the streets to march from City Hall to force employers to listen to and respond to their concerns. The march took place on the first Monday in September. Twelve years later, in 1894, Congress would make that day a federal holiday in recognition of workers’ achievements and their importance to the strength of the U.S. democracy. But that recognition came only after a massive strike of workers crippled the railroad industry.

Last Thursday, working conditions and low pay once again brought American workers to the streets in protest. This time, it was fast food restaurant employees nationwide marching with signs and shouting out demands for wage increases and better work conditions.

Their complaints mirror those of other workers in a U.S. economy still precarious after a long recession. Hundreds of thousands remain jobless nationwide, and even more remain underemployed – working for wages that can’t support a family or provide for basic needs.

A new study by the Economic Policy Institute provides some perspective. It shows that while the productivity of the average American worker increased nearly 75 percent between 1979 and 2012, the real income of that worker during that period grew only 5 percent.

Recent employment figures in North Carolina boost concerns. Although joblessness has dropped in all 14 of North Carolina’s metro areas over the last year, most of this job growth has occurred in the lowest wage sector – jobs paying about $8.30 an hour – suggesting that the biggest growth opportunities have been in ultra-low wage jobs.

Notes Allan Freyer, policy analyst with the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center: “Today’s jobs report makes it clear that the majority of all job creation is occurring in industries that don’t pay a living wage.”

All is not woeful for the American worker or the U.S. economy. Recovery from the recession is slow but it is also steady. Many laid-off workers are back on the job, and companies are hiring again.

But more needs to be done, especially to boost stagnant wages, ensure workers get paid enough to meet basic needs and provide access to skills training for the kind of jobs that will abound in a global economy.

The American worker is this country’s most valuable asset. On this Labor Day, as you take advantage of the last days of summer, and as you grill out and spend a leisure day with friends and family, that’s worth remembering, and worth the commitment of all of us to protect.

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