According to the U.S. Department of Labor, "Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country." Kind of ironic, if you think about it, since today our work force is shrinking faster than a politician's credibility.
America was built on the backs of the working class. And America's working class was the envy of the world both for its productivity and its working conditions and wages. It was a long, hard struggle against the powerful rich who wanted to keep both workers and salaries as low as possible so as not to bite into their profits. But workers knew, and fought for, the value of their labor.
After labor won the right to decent wages and benefits, they also developed a loyalty to the companies for which they worked. The great American middle class was proud to be associated with the corporations that provided them with jobs and benefits. Staying with one company for your whole career was a sign of success and stability and allowed the middle class the luxury of building their own homes, educating their children beyond their level and thinking that the future would always be better.
That's all changed now. Where once the disparity between corporate heads and laborers was large but not obscene, it is now uniformly obscene. Where once our working class took pride in being part of a company they felt valued their labor, now they switch jobs as often as they are able because there is little feeling that their company values them. Many feel that their company would dump them in a heartbeat if they thought they could get someone else to work harder and for less.
As our middle class shrinks to a small vestige of itself, we should all be asking what the future can possibly hold for a society that no longer seems to value the workers whose labors have kept our country pre-eminent in the world. For so long as CEOs are taking in millions in salaries and bonuses while the people who create that profit watch their jobs disappear and their salaries shrink, America will continue to shrink also. It was not the Rockefellers or the Mellons who made America great. It was America's working class, whose contentment with life and belief in the future created political stability in America that attracted the best and the brightest to our shores.
The American Dream was not about the rich becoming the richest. It was about the fact that we all had a chance to make a better life for our children tomorrow than ours was today. For most of the past 50 years or more, America's working class was part of America's middle class. Factory jobs were good jobs that allowed you to buy a modest house and a car, take an occasional vacation trip. My father and mother worked hard in their grocery store so that their children would go to college and find professions, not just jobs. The greatest thing about the American dream was that we could all dream it -- people of every color, race and ethnicity.
There was an inherent tenet to the American dream that allowed it to become a reality. It was the belief that, as a society, we knew rising tides lifted all boats. So to keep the dream alive, we had to stick together and not leave anyone out.
Unfortunately, in today's America, it seems the richest of the rich have all the boats and the rest of us only serve on them. The hope of America, that we can make a better life for ourselves and our children if we just work hard enough, has been dashed against the reality of today... a reality in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the great American middle class fades into memory.
Labor's back is being broken and if we don't do something soon, the middle class will live only in history classes. We can't celebrate a Labor Day with real joy if we don't have a vibrant, healthy working class to honor.
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," her memoir of 28 years in Barrow.