The Labor Day holiday brings many things to mind–the end of summer, the beginning of school and a day where Americans celebrate the work we do by not doing it this one day. But let’s remember how it all started.
The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City and quickly spread to other cities.
In 1894, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September a legal holiday. The form for the day’s celebration was outlined in the holiday’s first proposal: A street parade to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,” followed by a festival for the workers and their families. Later on speeches by prominent citizens were introduced as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday.
Today, barbeques, picnics and fireworks have mostly replaced speeches and political demonstrations. But it is important to remember at this time, during one of the worst economic downturn in history, that workers are vital to the nation’s productivity and prosperity.
NJPP Policy Fellow Norman Glickman believes that the way to celebrate labor and help workers is to expand unemployment benefits, fix the broken health care system and give the federal stimulus package the chance to work:
AS WE COME together for one last barbeque, let’s take some time to celebrate the besieged American worker on Labor Day.
Despite hope for the “green shoots” of an economic recovery, it is a little harder to celebrate this year: We are in the middle of the worst economic times since the Thirties.
Yes, the stock market is up a bit since March and the financial system has not collapsed as feared a year ago, but it has been a tough year for most of us: Unemployment has soared, wages have stagnated and people lucky enough to have jobs are less secure about keeping them.
Let’s look at the dreary numbers.
The July unemployment rate in New Jersey stood at 9.3 percent, about twice what it was before this Great Recession began in late 2007. More than 400,000 people are now out of work, compared to 200,000 before the economy crashed.
Hardest hit have been people in the construction and finance sectors, but losses have bled across the economy. No industries have been spared.
Unemployment for men has risen above that for women (6.1 percent vs. 5.4 percent) in large part due to the decimation of male-dominated industries, like finance and construction. African-Americans have more than twice the jobless rate as whites.
Financial sector jobs
Bergen County towns that prospered on the pinstriped backs of Wall Streeters are feeling lots of pain from the downturn; high-paid brokers and traders have lost work and their bonuses. Others further down the financial food chain are also hurting.
In Ridgewood, for instance, where one in six people work in financial services, 20 downtown stores are vacant. According to a recent Record report, the town’s Cheese Shop, which catered to high-income clientele for many years, is closing next month. Restaurants, dry cleaners, and other retailers are feeling the pinch of the downturn. They are reporting sales declines of up to 40 percent.
This makes for unhealthy downtowns throughout the area and further weakens real estate markets.
The high levels of unemployment have also led to increased home foreclosures. Lost income from job loss leads very quickly to payment delinquencies and foreclosures. People who had good credit and standard mortgages can’t keep their houses when unemployment strikes.
Also, tax revenues have dried up because of tight credit and joblessness. Municipalities and school districts have taken huge tax hits as foreclosures soared and houses were abandoned.
As people lose their homes, their tax payments dry up. Many families have also had to say bye-bye to their health insurance. No job, no coverage.
As bad as unemployment may seem — and it is truly bad — the number of people who are underemployed is even more serious. The Economic Policy Institute reports that fully one in seven (14.9 percent) New Jerseyans fit into this category. These are the unemployed, plus those who want to work full time, but can find only part-time jobs (they are working less than 35 hours a week). Also add those who have given up trying to find work because labor market conditions are so weak and are not counted among the unemployed.
The disaster of underemployment is worse for Hispanics (19.4 percent) and African-Americans (27.8 percent) than for the work force as a whole.
People are also unemployed longer than they were previously: The amount of time people spend out of work has increased by about 50 percent in the past year. Unfortunately, there are now about six unemployed people for every available job nationally. This is bad news for job seekers.
New Jersey’s problems didn’t start with this recession. Looking back over the decade, we now have fewer jobs than we had at the turn of the century. This compares to nearly 500,000 jobs we gained during the Nineties.
There was a largely jobless recovery from the Bush-era recession of 2001-2003 and it is likely that we will see few new jobs when we emerge from the current recession. Our economy is less able to produce more good jobs than it did a decade ago.
What must we do?
First, have patience: Give the Obama administration’s stimulus plan — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — more time to work. This substantial program involving tax cuts and spending on transportation, education and other useful items is only in its infancy.
Most economists, including me, argue that the recovery act will need far more time to generate new jobs and retain existing ones. We should see more progress on the jobs front by next year, but it won’t pull us completely out of our economic funk.
Second, at both the state and national levels, we need to extend unemployment benefits to keep families afloat. Too many people are running out of benefits because of the depth of the recession. Let’s add another six months of benefits.
Third, we must fix the broken health insurance system, which is fatally tied to jobs.
Despite this bad news, we know that New Jerseyans are a tough bunch and somehow we will pull through.
Let’s hope that next Labor Day will bring more to celebrate.