By Richard Reeves
I woke up last Thursday morning to learn that my FedEx man does not work for FedEx. Voices on National Public Radio’s "Morning Edition" informed me that although FedEx controls just about every minute of its drivers’ days, the corporation regards them as "independent contractors."
Thus, no benefits—they even have to pay for their own uniforms—and the workers can be kicked out anytime FedEx feels like it.
This was five days before Labor Day, the 120-year-old holiday that, according to the Labor Department, is "the first Monday in September, 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 contribution workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country."
Nice words, written after 10,000 workers marched in an 1882 "Labor Day Parade" and celebrated in a New York City park. That’s what we pretend to celebrate even though it no longer exists for FedEx guys who are no longer "workers," but are now "contractors" or "involuntary entrepreneurs." Outsourced Americans. You could lump them with the franchisees of fast-food outlets. A corporation makes all the rules, avoids paying all the benefits and passes on the risk and liabilities to the franchisees. Got bad milk? Your problem.
Like many "workers" of my generation, I have been there and done that. I am a member of three unions: the Newspaper Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Screen Actors Guild. Although it was run by as dumb a group of folks that ever gathered, I am forever indebted to the Newspaper Guild. I was working for a nonunion paper, the Newark Evening News in New Jersey, for $60 a week when I was hired by The New York Herald Tribune, a union paper that paid me $163.60 a week. I could buy a house and I did. I went to The New York Times, a union paper, which started me at $230 a week with loads of benefits and overtime. Then there came a day when I was promoted to management, chief political correspondent, with a salary of $23,000 a year in 1971. But there was no overtime, and I was taking home less than I had as a "worker."
So it goes. Management, of which I was then a part, had begun to understand how to squeeze workers and their unions. By 2013, fewer than 10 percent of private-sector employees belonged to unions, compared with 20 percent in 1983 and more than 50 percent in the 1950s. Result: Wages have stagnated, spouses have gone to work, strikes have been broken. Now more than half the unionized workers in the country are public service employees, who have better and more complicated work rule regimes than corporate employees.
So, I would argue, Labor Day is a farce. Even public employees—read Wisconsin!—are losing what security America offers. At the minimum, the first Monday in September should be called "Reagan Day," or the date should be changed to Aug. 3 and the holiday called "PATCO Day." That was the day in 1981 that President Reagan stated that if members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization—the only union that endorsed him in the 1980 presidential election—did not return to work, they would be fired. They did not return and they were fired. Corporate America got the message, and private-sector unions were marked for death.
Now, that is what we celebrate on Labor Day: the rise of management and the death of organized labor.
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