Labor Day in America
by Catherine J. Rourke
September 2, 2013
It's business as usual this Labor Day in America, where many workers have to toil on the holiday, many without time-and-a-half pay.
This holiday has long represented the unofficial end of summer: the last three-day weekend to gather with family and friends for a cookout and take a breather before heading back to work, school and our busier autumnal lives.
As paid time off shrinks along with former benefits and America becomes a nation of part-time and freelance workers, holidays such as this one could easily become a thing of the distant past -- like the Labor Movement itself.
Pretty clever of these corporations, isn't it? And terribly convenient. Same labor force, same lack of living wages, and now minus the holidays and health benefits.
Indeed this Labor Day seems like such a paradox and archaic paradigm when so many of us, myself included, remain jobless, invisible, struggling and groping. And many of those “lucky” enough to have a job feel so overworked and underpaid.
Today we remember the workers of 1882 who courageously abandoned their work stations, forsaking their wages to initiate the first Labor Day.
That's when the folks who brought all of us the weekend -- labor unions -- emerged to defend and protect American workers against the robber baron employers of that era in a real David and Goliath face-off.
After a dozen years of battling big business, Congress finally designated it a national holiday in 1894.
The Labor Movement continued through the 20th century, until union became a dirty word in the Reagan era as big business propaganda succeeded in turning workers against the very antidote to their wage and workplace woes.
Labor Day was no picnic in the 19th century and it's certainly no picnic now.
As the 20th century turned into the new millenium, businesses usurped workers' right to organize. Then in 2008, workers lost their jobs by the thousands and, in 2010, unemployment levels surpassed those of the Great Depression.
But 2013 is different and workers now face an entirely new set of challenges.
This Labor Day too many Americans don't have a job to return to after the long weekend. Some no longer have homes.
Sedona, Arizona, and all of America remains stuck at a general crossroads that includes work. While disconcerting, there IS some good news and hope. But, first, we need to look at what's wrong to heal and make it right.
Unemployment numbers in Yavapai County in Arizona have hit the highest in the state and just one visit to the DES office in Cottonwood proves a grim picture.
Frightened faces and families with kids pour over the job “opportunity” list that offers abysmal prospects such as landscaper, teller, caregiver and medical biller or even a food service position for sub-minimum wage.
How far will four bucks an hour get you when it will barely cover the cost of a gallon of gas?
Indeed, most food service workers will tell you that one hour's labor can no longer buy them a burger or burrito in some of their own restaurants.
Employers -- Having it "their" way
If the corporations could have it completely their way -- and they almost do -- then they'd outsource as many jobs as possible and turn the rest into a scene from the I Love Lucy chocolate factory episode, which is pretty much what Wal-mart and other companies have done.
And in this growing freelance workforce, a vast pool of scattered genius and brilliance remains fragemented and alienated, without sick pay, pensions or medical care.
Without labor unions, these workers have no voice, no bargaining power, no rights, no presence, no force and no power in Washington or in the workplace. Exactly what their corporate employers want.
Workers have become totally overwhelmed in doing the job of five employees for the price of one. Even in my own media profession, the few jobs offered require one "reporter" to serve the role of the editor, photographer, production manager, webmaster, videographer, PhotoShop expert, social media specialist, page designer and so on. Just reading the job descriptions feels exhausting.
Recent labor statistics show that wages are indeed plummeting along with the the number of jobs. Currently, six out of ten jobs pays an average of $10-$12 per hour.
One glance at the gas pumps and sticker prices on food and anyone can see why most American workers simply aren't cutting the mustard.
And that includes journalists, not just counter clerks at mini-marts.
The truth about the truth-telling business
Just last month I noticed my former editor’s job posted online at a newspaper where I worked 12 years ago. The job description remained unchanged.
It required tons of experience and an acute multitasking ability to craft captivating headlines, rewrite stories, correct grammar and punctuation, restructure press releases, fill in the holes, fact-check everything, ensure compliance with media law and then put it all in Associated Press format.
A lot of work.
Now the only difference was that they had tossed in digital media expertise and several other jobs that have now been eliminated from the paper. In addition to all the editing functions, this new editor has to serve as a columnist, webmaster, photographer, social media specialist, videographer, production coordinator, page designer and much more.
It's similar to the work I do on the Observer but without all the tyranny and censorshop of the traditional newsroom environment.
The other thing that remained unchanged was the salary at $10.50/hour or about $25K per year.
It was shocking then, but it’s even more appalling now.
No pensions or 401Ks, of course, and the health "benefits" were anything but that, with obscene deductibles.
While some media are decrying the wages of food service workers, most people don't realize how the hourly wage of many respected white-collar professions requiring vast skills and education actually pay just a couple of bucks an hour more than food service jobs.
In fact, for many years as a newspaper reporter and editor, I had to rely on evening and weekend food service jobs to supplement my low journalism wages. Pensions never accompanied a single one of these positions and 401Ks were a total fantasy. So were weekends and holidays as work consumed more than 85 percent of my waking life, and there was still never enough for things like down payments on car loans or owning a home.
Once, when I did apply for a car loan, the finance manager looked at my paperwork and said, "We need your net monthly income, not your gross weekly salary." Yet the figure I wrote down WAS my net monthly income. It was so low that the loan officers were stunned and couldn't believe an educated, award-winning journalist received such shockingly low wages.
I didn't mention that my publisher was worth $150 million while paying me $10.50 an hour for putting his papers on the national map with all my countless awards, such as the one for my 9/11 column. While he had more than enough money to pay me a few bucks more an hour, which would never even put a dent in his monopolistic empire, sheer greed prevented him from doing so.
It's no different than the CEOs of fast food chains and other Fortune 500 companies that pay peanuts to workers while retaining the lion's share of the wealth and profits. Yet the media stories focusing on the blue collar worker fail to recognize that their own publishing empires are just as greedy and crooked as Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The hidden truth about food service jobs
On Labor Day in 2001 when I worked at that paper, I dutifully performed my editor’s duties, skipping lunch so I could leave work early to head for my second job as a waitress to make ends meet. By day I asked city councilors tough questions; by night I asked them their salad dressing choices.
As I quickly changed from my day job garb into my uniform, the manager screamed at me for being an hour late for the $2.13/hour job. Sure, I received some tips, but most customers were pretty cheap and the income represented a high-stakes game of Russian Roulette.
That night a table of five European tourists left no tip – zero – on a dinner tab of $150. Still, I had to pay the IRS a total of 15% of that dinner tab in taxes as a presumed tip – out of my subminimum wage.
As a result of this and similar tabs for which I received no gratuity, that week I had what is known as a “negative paycheck” – a pay day in which the worker OWES the company money to pay for taxes because the wage base is insufficient to cover standard taxes as well as the taxes on presumed income from tips.
Insult to injury after working from 8 a.m to 4 p.m. at the paper for $10.50/hour and then from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the restaurant for $2.13/hour, a total of 14 hours with no breaks.
I highlight this as a prime example of what is happening right NOW in the workplace – not in 2001, when the cost of living was not nearly as high as it is today.
But stay with me here because this IS leading up to some encouraging news!
That Labor Day I finally got home at 11 p.m. with burning feet and burning indignation. This continues to represent the everyday reality for thousands of workers every single day.
It’s occurring right now as you read this on Labor Day. And it matters not how many degrees you’ve got from whatever Ivory Tower.
Today I would KILL for that miserable waitress job, with all its demanding customers, abusive managers and screaming chefs. Because I’m 60 now and few businesses are willing to hire someone that age when there are so many workers in their twenties begging for the same job.
Too young for Social Security, too old to get hired as a reporter or a waitress, and too honest to steal.
There's a vast sector of unemployed persons ages 50-61 that remain undesirable and unhirable in a culture that views them as ready for pasture while it keeps raising the age eligibility for Social Security. They're working as minimum wage clerks at Walgreens and as greeters at Walmart, or gathering stray carts in supermarket parking lots in the vague hope of making ends meet.
So, after all that higher education and all those press awards, I sit here unemployed with a dead car battery and a cracked radiator fan ready to explode at anytime, according to the mechanic. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for my life as a worker – dead and cracked.
There’s a grand total of $5.41 in my checking account and an illness four years ago devoured my credit cards and credit score. I’ve been wearing the same pair of contact lenses since February when you’re supposed to pop in a new pair every two weeks.
The list goes on, but it’s no time for a pity party and I'm certainly not alone. It’s Labor Day and time to get busy and stand in line with teens to find a job at the mall to pay the bills and fix the car, right? If the above cited statistics are correct, I have a NINE percent chance of getting a job. A minimum wage job, more than likely...
A new dawn
One day it dawned on me that we are in a time when it’s not just about JOBS, that word repeated ad nauseum during the 2012 presidential debates. Maybe we are being called to create our own ways and means – with innovative solutions, not just the usual shabby paychecks.
Why not be the change we wish to see in the world and make a difference while making a living?
That’s why I created the Sedona Observer in 2007. I figured that if my stories were being censored by my former publishers and the truth needed to get out – about wages, the workplace, health care, the homeless, the environment and other suppressed issues giving way for celebrities, high-speed chases and body-bag sensationalism – I would have to do it myself rather than continue pitching such stories to deaf publishing ears.
After all, the power of the press now belongs to those who own one, not for those who work for one.
Instead of weather reports, I get to write about global warming. Instead of school lunch menus, I can write about all the GMOs, sugar and refined flour in those menus. Instead of recycling canned wire service reports and press releases, I get to read in between the lines to expose their hidden agendas.
Best of all, I get to put the medical stethoscope under the media microscope and to serve as the watchdog of the media, now lying like sleeping dogs while Rome burns.
I designed the paper’s business model much like NPR and other public media, basing it on public donations to pay myself and other journalists, videographers, webmasters, cartoonists and so on. Without advertising to censor our material, we could emancipate journalism to deliver the hidden truth and, as our motto says, to change America by changing its media first.
One of the major challenges in our world is that we no longer have ethical media to report what’s really going on and hold criminals accountable – villains like the banks and CEOs and Wall Street and Big Pharma. Protests remain ignored and unreported; press releases are censored; petitions go in the scuttle bucket. Patients die mysteriously at an Arizona facility and no one pays any attention. The homeless are rounded up life fugitives and taken into custody.
Until the the media is willing to take moral responsibility to tell the truth, the great awakening on this planet cannot occur. For all the good books and causes and campaigns and new movements -- from human rights and animal welfare and spirituality and everything in between, everyone still clamors for a media review, a news or feature story and media exposure. Yes, even with social media like Facebook because they lack the space and attention spans to present and dissect the facts.
So this has been my job for the last several years in the style of Ben Franklin and the other newspaper publishers of the American Revolution – irreverent, indignant, incendiary and 100 percent truthful, with the real story behind the often vague and questionable facts.
While the paper has received numerous national press awards, donations to support public media have resembled those waitress tips of 2001 – a game of Russian Roulette. But we’ve garnered over 40,000 free subscribers around the globe and in every continent except Africa. Seeing what’s developing in Syria, we suspect we’ll be getting subscribers from there too…
Turning workplace woes into gold
So I became the solution instead of remaining part of the problem -- a frustrated underpaid journalist slaving for unethical media that was censoring stories and failing to properly serve the public. In my willingness to take a second job at night as a waitress and serve the public its food as well as its media, an extrarodinary thing happened.
Day after day as I pivoted between the newspaper and restaurant, it occurred to me the only difference between waiter and writer was one letter. I would merge the two and create great stories!
The restaurant became an inspiration for my pen and I launched a column series about the sordid side of life behind the swinging doors. That evolved into another column for another paper called "Tales from the Trenches," which eventually turned into my "Invisible Sedona" series here in this paper.
Those columns received a "Journalist of the Year" award in 2006 and one of the greatest press honors in Arizona. In that nasty, dirty, sweaty, and disgracefully low-paying job, I had managed to turn coals into diamonds.
How can we all become the solution to our own workplace dilemmas? I'm not out of the financial woods by any means, but at least I found a way to do what I love without having to leave my ethics and integrity at the newsroom door every day for a shameful paycheck.
I actually went back to that old newspaper and thanked my former publisher. If he hadn't treated me so poorly and paid me so pathetically, I would have never gotten the gumption to start this one, nor would I have a distinguished journalism award engraved on my resume forever.
In fact, I'd still be at my old desk, regurgitating boring press releases. So instead of resenting and loathing, we must begin to start loving and forgiving and thanking.
Good news: alternatives and solutions
Across the country, campaigns unfold to address the pitiful and medieval federal minimum wage
of 7.25 dollars per hour, one of the lowest among developed economies.
And food service workers continue to protest pathetic working conditions. We already know that industry is "out to lunch" with its wages and workplace practices, and these demonstrations are at least waking up Americans if they are falling on the deaf ears of CEOs.
In our nation's capitol last week, thousands marched to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the lack of a respectable living wage he called for that has so shockingly eluded workers half a century later.
No alternative solution other than a good old-fashioned protest seems to be emerging on the horizon. Where did that get us with Occupy Wall Street? We're right back where we started, only worse off.
So what's the good news in all this if we're worse off?
WE HAVE THE POWER TO CONTROL OUR PERCEPTIONS.
If we can pause long enough to see that these conditions offer us an unprecedented opportunity to put our talents and divine gifts forward on behalf of one another, then we CAN shift the direction of our nation.
Labor Day is not about parades or picnics. It's about dignity and respect.
It’s about raising higher consciousness instead of banners.
It’s about walking our truth instead of just walking the picket line.
It's about realizing we are mighty eagles that have been picking up crumbs tossed by lame sparrows.
It’s not about our slice of the pie as workers but about the whole enchilada for all people -- the retired, the disabled, the homeless, the sick.
Labor Day is not about belaboring the doom and gloom of occupational statistics, but about seeing it as a magnificent opportunity for our collective evolution to create a better world.
It’s about inventing better ways of being, doing and having to heal our wounded workplaces, our crippled health care system and the terrorism of citizens dwelling in fear.
We have every cause to celebrate our lives and our divine gifts and talents this Labor Day, no matter how low our checking account balance or credit score or our job status or our age.
We are in an era where it’s not always about JOBS. Maybe we are being called to create our own ways and means – with solutions, not just paychecks.
We are hired by the heavens. God is our employer and our PayPal.
Each of us has a divine Internal Revenue Service and an Eternal Revenue Service.
The Lord is our Landlord, whether we are homeless or have a roof.
Every one of us has a Divine Pharmacy and Physician within instead of taking dangerous drugs or facing obscene deductibles to cure what ails us.
The rest is all fodder for some future History Channel rerun of these times 50 years from now as future generations look back at how we handled our crises and turned our challenges – from labor and health care to war and GMOs and even the homeless – to golden opportunities for positive change that will lead our descendants by example, just as our forefathers did for us.
So we can celebrate our labor history today, but we can no longer repeat it. It's time for a change.
The visionary Buckminster Fuller once said: "We cannot solve the immediate problem with the same mindset that created it." Einstein said something similar.
It's not up to unions to figure it out or duke it out for us at the bargaining table in an era when most workers remain fragmented and unorganized and when we are fast becoming a nation of freelancers and independent contractors.
It is going to take a movement of consciousness since the challenge remains a spiritual one. While that's a detailed topic for another future column, for now, we commemorate those who gave their lives so we could have this Labor Day -- and our precious weekends all year long.
Together, we can make it work. Together, we can put a permanent end to the unnecessary labor pains and transform coals into diamonds and our vocations into our vacations.
Happy Labor Day!
Catherine Rourke is an award-winning social justice journalist and former labor advocate and activist who produces the Observer in her spare time as a public service journalism “gift” to America. She earns no salary to produce this newspaper and receives no ad revenues, but relies on your public donations to float this boat. She is the author of Fire Your Doctor, Dump the Meds, Cancel the Procedure and Save Your Life!
Posted September 2, 2013:
Thank you for running an article that finally offers us something different than all the negative statistics. While you took the time to inform us of these facts, you didn't remain there. Instead, you lifted us up and took us to a much higher and inspiring place -- exactly where America needs to be -- looking forward instead of backward with the same old headset.
Parsippany, New Jersey
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The Sedona Observer upholds the tenets of genuine public service journalism by resurrecting investigative reporting via Emancipatory Journalism -- a return to the original style of the earliest newspapers during the American Revolution.
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