By Matthew Rothschild on September 04, 2009

It’s Labor Day and the American worker doesn’t have a lot to celebrate.

Unemployment stands at 9.7 percent—that’s 15 million people out of work, officially, and millions more unofficially.

“Nearly one in six workers are now unemployed or underemployed,” notes the Economic Policy Institute.

Many of those who are lucky enough to still have work have seen their hours and benefits cut back, or have been forced to take unpaid furloughs. Twenty percent of companies have suspended their contributions to 401(k) plans or other pensions.

And wages are stagnant, and have been for some time.

Going all the way back to 2000, wages have grown less than 1 percent a year, adjusted for inflation, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Meantime, the richest Americans have seen their wealth skyrocket, so much so that now we have widest gap between the rich and the poor since 1929.

One way to narrow the gap is through progressive taxation and a robust estate tax.

Another way to help workers and narrow this gap is to make it easier for unions to organize. That’s what the AFL is trying to do by pushing the Employee Free Choice Act. And simply enforcing existing labor law by going after companies that wantonly violate it would make a big difference.

The fact is, being in a union increases your wages, to say nothing of your benefits and workplace protections.

“In 2008, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $886 while those who were not represented by unions had median weekly earnings of $691,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Still another way to help workers is to have the government employ more people: An aggressive public works program by the federal government would help enormously, as would increased federal revenue sharing with the states, which have had to shed so many employees this year.

But one of the reasons Republicans are so against public sector employment is because they hate unions, and the public sector is the most unionized.

“Government workers were nearly five times more likely to belong to a union than were private sector employees,” the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted.

Obama and the Democrats have a chance to improve the lives of working people.

But if they cave on the necessary policy changes, next Labor Day may be even grimmer than this one.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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