“In the U.S., picnics, instead of street protests, won the day.”

August 31, 2019 11:52 am
wheres the sales?

Frank Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated Newspaper, September 16, 1882.

“The organizers of the first Labor Day were interested in creating an event that brought different types of workers together to meet each other and recognize their common interests,” writes economist Jay Zagorsky in a brief history of Labor Day.

His essay is titled “Have we forgotten the true meaning of Labor Day?” — a question that he answers in the first paragraph:

“Unlike most U.S. holidays, it is a strange celebration without rituals, except for shopping and barbecuing. For most people it simply marks the last weekend of summer and the start of the school year.”

Or as he puts it elsewhere in the essay, “In the U.S., picnics, instead of street protests, won the day.”

It’s a fair characterization, rendered doubly unfortunate since another day once set aside to honor working people and their cause, May Day, has been reduced, at least in the U.S., to a non-event vaguely having something to do with ribbons on poles and baskets in flowers, if anything at all.

At least on Labor Day, people get a day off. Well, some people.

Of course working people — working Nevadans in particular — face systemic barriers as the result of policy decisions that make life harder for them than it needs to be. All year round.

With that in mind, here are a few suggested reads for your Labor Day weekend.


The Economic Policy Institute has published a series of essays in conjunction with this year’s Labor Day. I’ll highlight two.

Let’s start with the obvious, something, say, Station Casinos would understand.

Organized labor has been under relentless attack and demonized for decades, and it has become harder and harder for working people to band together to protect themselves. EPI’s Heidi Shierholz summarized her essay on the subject this way:

The share of workers represented by unions has dropped by more than half since 1979—from 27.0% to 11.7% in 2018. Not coincidentally, the share of income going to the top 10% has escalated in this period—these high earners now capture nearly half of all income. The decline of unions is not because people don’t want to be in unions. They do: The share of people who either have union coverage or report they want it is 60%—the same as it was 40 years ago. But employers’ aggressive efforts to dismantle unions and impede organizing efforts have robbed workers of this opportunity. We need fundamental reform of labor law to restore and protect workers’ rights to come together and have a voice in their workplace.

Station Casinos, the aforementioned giant of video poker machines strategically placed to maximize revenues from locals whether they can afford it or not, refuses to honor its promise to bargain in good faith with workers who have shown through repeated votes that they, as Shierholz put it, want to be in unions.

The Culinary union in Las Vegas is one of the most successful private sector bargaining units in the United States, frequently recognized nationally as a — maybe the — contemporary model of an effective American labor union. Nevada’s working class, characterized like so much of the U.S. working class by women of color, faces many unique challenges (more on that in a minute). Those challenges would be far more numerous for far more people if not for the Culinary — and not just because so many employees are working under contracts negotiated by the Culinary: Wages and benefits at Station properties, the Venetian and every other non-union resort in Southern Nevada would be far lower if not for market standards established by Culinary contracts.

Another EPI essay, by Elise Gould and Valerie Wilson, describes how low unemployment has not resulted in significantly higher wages, and even sluggish wage increases in the U.S. haven’t been equally spread across race and gender. The authors’ summary:

While unemployment rates in this recovery are similar to what we saw in the late 1990s recovery, wages have not grown nearly as fast or as evenly across race and gender as they did during that period. From 1996 to 2000, wage growth was above 9% for white men, white women, and black women, and was 10.3% for black men. But from 2015 to 2019, it was considerably slower for all groups, with growth slowing the most for black men and black women (to 5.0% and 4.7%). Wage growth gaps are even more dramatic among college graduates. From 2015 to 2019, women college grads saw their wages grow just 3.0%, compared with 7.8% for men, while wages of black college grads fell 0.3% versus 6.6% wage growth for white college grads. In contrast, wage growth for college graduates (like overall wage growth) was strong and even across all groups from 1996 to 2000—with black workers experiencing the strongest growth at 11.5% and other groups not far behind (10.9% for men, 9.8% for women, and 10.6% for white workers).


It is maddeningly easy to find evidence that systemic and policy barriers can be particularly burdensome for working people in Nevada. Take a look at some recent Current headlines:

What’s more, income inequality is especially pronounced in Nevada, where the overall economy has grown much faster than household incomes.

Donald Trump and his fawning Republicans, along with much of the media, and many Democrats (including some seeking the presidency) warn that leading Democratic candidates for president, especially Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are presenting an agenda that is too aggressive, too “liberal,” too risky, and out-of-touch with conventionally accepted, mainstream American public opinion.

The more mainstream, more accepted, “safer” policy prescription, say those still captive to Reagan-Thatcher ideological hegemony whether they know it or not, is the time-tested promise to create new, better jobs. Republicans want to do it through cutting taxes and regulations, “mainstream” Democrats through education and “workforce development.” Both approaches assume that the only remedy for people in jobs with poor pay and lousy conditions is getting those people out of those jobs and into better ones.

But (as I’ve written time and again), jobs with poor pay and lousy conditions are the jobs we’ve got. They are also the jobs projected to grow the most, numerically, in both Nevada and the nation.

Nevada Democratic politicians will tout their commitments to organized labor this Labor Day weekend (at picnics, not protests). The remarks will likely include enthusiastically rendered promises that their enlightened policies to expand training and education are going to equip Nevadans for the exciting jobs of tomorrow.

That’s fine. But the relentless focus on jobs that might materialize in the future can also be a pernicious distraction from a far more urgent crisis — pay and conditions for working Nevadans struggling to make ends meet in the jobs of today.

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