By Vicki Meath, Just Economics
Originally Published in Asheville Citizen Times
For a lot of us, Labor Day is a day off filled with picnics and barbeques. For many North Carolinians around Canton, it is the culmination of a weekend long celebration. For others, it is just another work day. Holidays can also be a good time to reflect on the historical significance of the day and this Labor Day I ask, are we still committed to progress for workers?
Labor Day was started in the late 1800’s at the height of the industrial revolution when the average American worker was working seven, 12-hour days. Children as young as 5 worked in mines and factories for lower wages than adults and many people worked in unsafe conditions resulting in numerous deaths.
The late 1800’s was also a time of rising resistance when workers risked their livelihoods and sometimes their lives to stand against workplace injustices. Events like the Pullman Palace Car Company Strike of 1894 brought attention to the exploitation and injustices of the working class and laid the groundwork for many of the protected rights of workers today. Labor activists like Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, A. Phillip Randolph, Cesar Chavez, and countless others led fights to bring about workplace improvements and critical policy change like the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Thanks to the blood, sweat, and tears of working class warriors, we have come a long way but I wonder, has the progress gained by American workers of the past made us complacent? Today we don’t have children working in factories, but we have slid backwards to have the highest rate of income inequality since 1929. Today we have the 40 hour work week, but we are losing protections in regards to healthcare, union representation, and job safety. While we do have a minimum wage, the value of the minimum wage adjusted for inflation has eroded, leaving many full time workers unable to put a roof over their head and food on their table without some type of help.
This labor day, whether you are cooking out with friends, waving at parade goers in Canton, or working, let’s honor the working class heroes of this country who fought for critical workplace protections. We can honor these heroes by building on their progress and fighting for worker justice like a higher minimum wage.
Across the country and here in Western North Carolina, we know workers can’t survive and thrive on $7.25, the federal minimum wage. Twenty nine other states have raised the minimum wage higher than the federal rate and workers in North Carolina are organizing to make that a reality here as well through the Raising Wages NC campaign. A fulltime minimum wage worker, working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year makes $15,080/year before taxes, and that’s if you can get 40 hours and if you never take a single day off. The last federal minimum wage increase was in 2009 and while the minimum wage has not risen since then, costs like housing have.
And raising the minimum wage is an economic boom. Low and middle income earners don’t have foreign investments but rather tend to spend their money in the local economy on goods and services that support local businesses.
The real value of the minimum wage was at its height in 1968 and adjusted for inflation would be worth close to $12/hr in today’s dollars. Back then, businesses managed to still grow and young workers had an opportunity to come into the workforce making a livable base wage to grow from. Don’t we want at least the same for workers today? Isn’t the well-being of today’s workers a cause worth continuing to fight for?
Beyond minimum wages, local unions and organizations like Down Home NC, the Living Wage Coalition of Transylvania County, and Just Economics are continuing the fight for workers’ rights and a just economy in Western North Carolina. This labor day, consider how to lend your voice to the chorus of people who have pressed and fought for fairness, equity and justice in the workplace.
Vicki Meath is Executive Director of Just Economics of WNC and an advocate of living wages, affordable housing and better transit. She has over 15 years of experience in community organizing, policy advocacy, and nonprofit leadership work. She lives in West Asheville with her 17 year old daughter