For most Americans Labor Day is the bookend summer holiday which closes the family vacation months that begin each year with Memorial Day. Not one in a thousand could tell you it was established by a unanimous vote of Congress in 1894. Fewer still would know why such consensus prevailed. Suffice it to say that the wholesale slaughter of workers by federal troops during the Pullman strikes proved an embarrassment for both political parties. Designating a day of national recognition for the working men and women of the nation seemed expedient at the time. The Labor Day parades of past years, however, are now only memories, and the unions that organized them barely cling to life.
If Congress were to reconsider the holiday, it seems likely that our Tea Party friends would lobby for a Job Creators Day as a more appropriate replacement. Why celebrate the labor of those who simply toil when we have an opportunity to recognize the financial risks taken by those who actually put up the money to create our jobs? Think of the courage displayed by these job creators — think of their unselfish commitment to creating profits for themselves and their shareholders. It’s nearly enough to give a working lad or lass goose bumps. Just how lucky can they be?
Of course there are jobs that any society must have performed which entail inherent risks to health, even life. The military comes immediately to mind. But ‘first responders’ would qualify, along with correction officers, as well as our public health and road maintenance workers. In fact, more Colorado highway workers have been killed in the line of duty than State Patrol Officers during the past century. Both the ancient Chinese dynasties and the Roman Empire discovered they couldn’t attract workers, other than slaves, to perform these tasks without providing pensions. Yes, public pensions enjoy a long history in the human story. One of the first signs of societal breakdown is the resistance, or refusal, to maintain middle class pensions for civil servants.
Government serves as a model employer in every culture. When the police find it necessary to meet their weekly payroll by throwing up Friday afternoon roadblocks in order to extract cash “tolls” from the traveling public, as frequently occurs in banana republics, you are unlikely to discover generous benefits in the private sector — no health plans, no workers’ compensation, no unemployment insurance, no pensions. As American employers have abandoned guaranteed pensions for their workers, they have joined the rising chorus of complaints against public pensions. These objections have nothing to do with the actual cost, which is little more than 2-3 percent of total government expenditures, but everything to do with society’s ethical obligation to workers.
When each worker is held responsible for his or her own retirement planning, the actuarial costs increase for all. Workers can no longer average their experience, but must attempt to save against the possibility that he or she may be the one who winds up living to a hundred. In the meanwhile, financial institutions can skim commissions off their 401(k) accounts. Only bankers prove beneficiaries from such a system. But, that is what is currently being touted as “fairness.” If workers in the private sectors must risk their retirement security on the vagaries of the market, then public employees should be required to do the same. Right?
Labor Day weekend seems a good time to ponder this argument. Shouldn’t anyone who spends his or her career raising children, paying taxes, (perhaps not creating jobs), but working hard, be encouraged to participate in a retirement plan that guarantees a dignified standard of living? Not just public employees, but every working American? How and why is that a Ponzi scheme?
Miller Hudson is a contributing columnist for The Colorado Statesman.