FOR MOST Americans, Labor Day is not an occasion of direct political significance. Rather than marching in the streets under working-class banners, most people go to the beach or on a picnic. It's a last chance to relax before the pace of business, social and academic activity picks up. This preference should not be mistaken for an unworthy indifference to the plight of the workers. Quite the contrary. It is the sign of a healthy society in which most people see themselves as workers--past, present or future--and assume, without much thinking about it, that the concerns of the labor force are, in general, nothing more or less than the sum of their own individual concerns.
This country has had its share of labor strife. But it has not produced a distinctive "laboring class" in either political or social terms. Perhaps that's because America has also been spared the divisive presence of a class dependent on inherited property for its distinction. The income distribution in this country is far from equal, but it is earned income-- not property income--that accounts for most of the difference.
It is fashionable these days to question whether America can still afford to take the well-being of its labor force more or less for granted. It is properly noted that the economy has weathered a series of serious recessions in recent years and that each has left unemployment higher than before. But it is less frequently noted that, during the 1970s, the U.S. economy had a fantastic record in producing millions of new jobs to meet the demands of a burgeoning labor force. No other industrialized country came close to matching that success.
But, it will be countered, the 1980s are different. Two back-to-back recessions brought a halt to rapid job growth. International competition and rapidly changing technology threaten permanent job losses for the high-paying manufacturing sector that has been the stronghold of organized labor. America needs to take care lest it become a nation divided between a horde of underpaid, underemployed workers and a prosperous class of technical and managerial workers.
These are concerns worth worrying about--with a measure of caution. This country has weathered many industrial upheavals before. These have produced prolonged hardships for many people--even for whole regions--that should no longer be tolerated in a nation as wealthy as this one has since become. But the economy has only begun to recover from its sharpest recession in five decades. It is too soon to judge the extent of permanent damage. Nor is it clear that the current wave of technology will produce either the massive benefits or the enormous disruptions predicted by some observers.
If there is one labor market concern clearly worth substantial worry, it is that the nation has still found no cure for accelerating inflation except the time-honored if dishonorable remedy of high unemployment. Perhaps this is a reason why it may be necessary for all workers--those who wear executive pin stripes as well as those who wear blue collars-- to become more aware that the well-being of individuals ultimately depends on more than the pursuit of their own short-term interests. It requires as well a reasonable accommodation to the larger interests of the society.