Labor Day is just another day off — albeit the one that closes summer — unless we know our history. Our work-free first Monday of September is in fact “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country,” according the U.S. Department of Labor.
Dating back to 1882 when labor unions were gaining strength, the holiday was celebrated for many years with parades to demonstrate “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” Festivities followed.
You don’t see many Labor Day parades nowadays, so Bay Weekly stages our own annual Labor Day Parade of Working People.
Work brings us our livelihood, supports for our families, endows our futures and defines our identities, I write introducing the story.
That’s what we like to think.
If you’re among the 3.3 million Americans earning minimum wage, your truth is likely closer to the James Brown line in “Living in America”: Everybody’s working overtime.
Federal minimum wage is $7.25. Lots of workers earn less. The minimum wage for tipped workers, for example, is $2.13 an hour.
States can choose to pay more. Washington pays the highest minimum wage: $9.32, with inflation adjustments.
Starting in the new year, Maryland’s minimum wage of $7.25 rises to $8, with staged increases topping off at $10.10 on July 1, 2018.
That’s a big deal — except in perspective. At 1968 levels, $10.77 would be 2014’s minimum wage.
Work a full-time year at today’s minimum wage and you’ll earn just over $15,000.
At that level, Labor Day is black comedy.
A bell-shaped curve made the prosperity this day celebrates. People of enormous earnings are one end of the flat base from which the bell rises. People who earn little or nothing are the opposite end of that base. The bell is the middle class — producing, exporting and buying our way to a strong economy.
“How do we expand the middle class?” Congressman Steny Hoyer asked at a Women’s Equality Day lunch this week honoring the 94th anniversary of women’s suffrage. “A ladder of opportunity from poverty to the middle class.”
Each of the 13 people you’ll meet in Bay Weekly’s Labor Day Parade climbed an opportunity ladder. Many built their own. Of these fascinating stories, my favorites are the two men whose work in good, stable jobs bring them livelihood and identity, support for their families and their futures. A good company, good luck and good contacts built their ladders.
We love success stories, but a problem as big as our deflating middle class takes success policies. An almost liveable minimum wage is one part, and it depends on employers.
Workers have their responsibilities, too, gaining skills that make them employable.
Schools are also part, filling our minds, training our hands, then showing us how to use what we know and do. Encouraging creativity is another part of the curriculum for success.
Good luck is a great thing; it helped many — maybe all — of this year’s parade of people find their work. Skilled creativity fueled by ambition is your part.
Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; [email protected]