So Jeb Bush thinks Americans just aren’t working hard enough. In a recent newspaper interview, the GOP presidential candidate, former Florida governor, and silver-spoon
holder, criticized President Obama’s proposal to expand overtime protection to 5 million American workers, saying that “People are going to have to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families.” Seriously, Jeb?
To the contrary, Americans work plenty. According to the Organization (OECD), Americans worked an average of 1,789 hours last year, higher than the OECD average of all countries surveyed. And still, our wages have been stagnant for the past 40 years even though our productivity has actually increased. Speaking of wages, Donald Trump, noted trust fund recipient and current (for the time-being) GOP front-runner, believes that the federal minimum wage of $7.25 is just fine at that level and “not a bad thing for this country.” So says a guy who has never had to, and likely never will have to, survive on $7.25.
And then, there’s Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who gets handsomely rewarded with campaign cash as chief lackey to the billionaire Koch Brothers, all the while bashing unions as “special interests” and comparing them to ISIS. I could probably go on – there are more than a dozen Republicans vying for the White House at this point – but it would take more room than I have in our newsletter to outline all the ways these candidates disrespect the value of most people who have to work for a living (and downright disparage people who can’t find jobs).
The sad thing is that these people even have an audience for their retrograde attitudes toward the working class. A lot of that audience includes members of the working class. Some are even in unions. America’s confused relationship with laborers and the idea of whose work is valued goes a long way toward explaining why our nation’s workers are so ill-treated compared with the rest of the developed world. America was built on the exploited labor of African people. Then, came the exploited labor of the poor – black and white – and of immigrants. Post- New Deal and post-World War II, the value of workers rose and they gained new rights that resulted in the middle class boom that lasted until the 1980s.
Today, we are in a new era of exploitation: of unpaid internships that look a lot like full-time jobs; of uncompensated overtime; of contract workers and temps; of outright wage theft. We’re a society where workers are expected to be on- call during what little vacation time they get, and a society where many don’t get vacation at all. We stand out as the only country in the industrialized world that doesn’t mandate paid vacation or maternity leave. At the same time, Americans identify themselves through their work; the first question one is always asked at a social gathering is not “What are your favorite hobbies,” but “What do you do?” And the idea of “working hard” as much as one can to achieve success, is seen as a badge of honor – no matter the consequences to one’s health and family life. The idea of working in our country is valued, but the act of laboring – outside that of the corporate executive – isn’t so much valued. So every September, we mark Labor Day with barbecues and shopping and beach-going, while the original reason for the holiday – a celebration of the achievements of the labor movement – lies mostly forgotten.