“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” President Abraham Lincoln, Dec. 3, 1861.
On Sept. 2, we will celebrate the 125th anniversary of America’s Labor Day, which became a federal holiday when President Grover Cleveland signed it into law on June 28, 1894.
A celebration honoring American workers was not easy to achieve. During the Industrial Revolution, Americans worked 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week in mills, factories, and mines. Children as young as 5 or 6 worked alongside adults. Conditions were dangerous and unhealthy, with no protections.
To fix this, workers began forming unions to achieve some leverage concerning hours, wages, and conditions. Business and government opposed these unions. Protesting workers were sometimes killed, as in the Haymarket Riot in 1886 and the Pullman Strike in 1894. In spite of the dangers, workers continued their protests, fighting to improve their lives.
Some of the improvements they won included the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, paid sick leave, safety laws, child labor laws, and other benefits no one would want to lose now. Another success was the concept of a minimum wage.
The U.S. Congress established a federal minimum wage in 1938, to help protect lower-paid workers. For the next 30 years, the minimum wage was raised at regular intervals, keeping pace with the cost of living.
In the early 1970s, however, Congress failed to increase the minimum wage to keep up with inflation. If the minimum wage had been raised to match increased productivity, it would be around $20/hour by now. Instead, it’s stuck at $7.25/hour, clearly insufficient to live on.
To rectify this inequality, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R.582, the Raise the Wage Act, on July 18. This would raise the federal minimum wage to $15/hour by 2025. This still leaves many workers behind, but it’s a start. The bill was sent to the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has refused to let it come to a vote. If it ever passes the Senate, President Donald Trump said he will veto it.
Many states realized that the federal government isn’t doing enough, so they’ve passed minimum wage bills of their own. In Nevada, the 2019 Legislature passed AB456, which raises the minimum wage from $8.25/hour for workers with no employer-provided health insurance to $12/hour by 2024. Gov. Steve Sisolak signed this bill into law June 12.
Some people seem to think capitalism means business owners should be able to pay their workers whatever the owners decide. Thomas Jefferson said this in an 1816 letter: “Those seeking profits, were they given total freedom, would not be the ones to trust to keep government pure and our rights secure. Indeed, it has always been those seeking wealth who were the source of corruption in government. No other depositories of power have ever yet been found, which did not end in converting to their own profit the earnings of those committed to their charge.”
In other words, without regulations and laws, business owners would tend to exploit their workers, who would have no recourse. Minimum wage would be one of the first items jettisoned by owners.
On a television show called “Undercover Boss,” a boss, usually the CEO of a company, goes undercover and works in his or her company as a regular worker. Most of the bosses thought they would have no problem keeping up. They were wrong.
Three of the companies profiled were Modell’s Sporting Goods, Checkers Drive-in Restaurants, and Boston Market. When these bosses went undercover, they saw how hard their minimum wage employees work. They realized these workers are doing vital work, without which the company could not survive, while earning too little to support themselves.
These were not just teenage part-time jobs or jobs easily learned in a few minutes. They took a lot of skill and were often physically strenuous. The bosses were both shocked and ashamed they hadn’t realized this previously. And they finally understood what Lincoln was talking about. Without labor, there is no capital. Without workers, we have nothing. Those opposed to raising the minimum wage should ask themselves, “Why is it OK to exploit the poor and powerless just so I can buy cheaper goods?”
I hope we remember this on Sept. 2. Happy Labor Day, everyone!
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at email@example.com.