Labor Day

Monday, September 7, 2009

WE AMERICANS honor work. We respect and revere working people. It's just that sometimes we have a funny way of showing it. The New World, both North and South America, was built on the labor of millions, but many of them were uncompensated, coerced or captured, and were driven to and beyond the limits of their endurance. There aren't too many statues to them around. Long after the enslavement of African and native peoples was outlawed and the indentured servitude of European immigrants ended, many workers and the people who worked them continued in arrangements such as sharecropping and sweatshop labor that were but a small step upward.

Even today contempt for the work of others is shown in derisive comments about "burger flippers" and in popular movies about doofuses in unskilled jobs. Undocumented immigrants are seen by many as soaking up benefits, while the work they do is often ignored, even though it's visible every day, in thousands of places.

All of which is not to say that the American ideal of a free people advancing their fortunes and their country's through their work has been betrayed. It has, however, had its ups and downs, and today many workers are seeing a down side. A tenth of the working population is looking for employment, and many others are in jobs that fail to match their skills or expectations. As the economy recovers, unemployment remains high. The question is raised whether the open and interconnected world economy that has long been the foundation of American prosperity and progress can continue to provide the jobs that sustain the country and hold it together.

There is often a pretty close correlation between the fortunes of a presidency and the unemployment rate. That fact should help concentrate some minds in Washington, especially in view of the possibility that we are facing a new long-term situation of joblessness and underemployment. That prospect, and the problem of growing inequality in wealth and wages, requires hard thinking and hard choices. It will not respond to constituency politics or efforts to make the other guy look bad. It's the biggest task ahead on this Labor Day.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company