Since Democratic President Grover Cleveland signed the law proclaiming Labor Day in 1894, the holiday’s significance as a unique American observance has waxed and waned.

Lord knows it’s time for a revival and one might — just might — be here.

There are signs. President Biden is the first self-proclaimed friend of labor in the White House in two generations, and his promise to rebuild the economy “from the bottom up and the middle out” is bearing fruit. Although the fixation on inflation — now thankfully abating — has obscured it, there have been solid wage gains through the pandemic and after for those at the bottom.

Case in point: The minimum wage traditionally covers the lowest 10%. Using that benchmark, neighboring New Hampshire had an effective $10 entry wage in 2019; it’s now more than $14, and rising. Maine employers report they can’t find workers at this state’s minimum — passed by referendum in 2016 and inflation-adjusted to $13.80 — particularly in the southern counties.

For the first time in decades, entry-level jobs are paying something closer to a living wage for a single person. Yes, costs for food and housing are rising, but even so, there’s opportunity.

There’s also a catch, of course. A hot labor market will eventually cool. At that point, the steady erosion of real wages, in proportion to productivity, that took place for the previous 40 years could resume.


The Reagan Revolution really did transform the economy, by breaking the power of labor unions, and redistributing capital upward — to employers and, especially, to accumulators of wealth.

We’ve heard a lot about the great fortunes accumulated via lower taxes and ever more expansive loopholes. What’s less well known is the enormous concentration among the largest companies in key economic sectors.

The only effective counter to ever-greater concentration in capitalist market economies is union organization. Government anti-trust regulation, as least as practiced here, has been largely unavailing.

Unions, however, have at times been dramatically effective, especially when democratically organized and governed, as under the New Deal’s original Wagner Act of 1935.

A fascinating recent exchange came during an encounter last March between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Howard Schultz, longtime CEO of Starbucks, who’s been embroiled in labor disputes.

Sanders first complimented Schultz on his coffee, then took aim at his labor practices, which have resulted in hundreds of complaints to the National Labor Relations Board, some 90 administrative rulings in employees’ favor, and successful organizing votes in 300 stores with 8,000 employees.


What irked Schultz, however, was Sanders’ calling him a “billionaire;” he has an estimated net worth of $4 billion.

Schultz called the characterization “unfair,” though ultimately conceding it was accurate. He insisted he “shared” his billions with employees, apparently by paying wages they find substandard.

There, in a nutshell, you have the essence of the current battle.

For 40 years, CEOs and big corporations have had it their way. In the 1980s, Wall Street cheered as profitable companies slashed thousands of employees to improve their quarterly returns. In Maine, executives like “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap delighted big investors by selling off the timberlands, hydroelectric facilities and vehicle fleets owned by the papers mills to “cash out” investments.

The paper mills weren’t exactly thriving, but manufacturing didn’t have to be offshored at this breakneck pace. Biden is the first president since then to make a serious bid to reclaim manufacturing.

Can unions organize again? Possibly.


An important milestone in Maine was the nurses’ union achieved at Maine Medical Center in Portland after two previous efforts failed. That was due in part to support from a strong national union, which not only won the election but got a contract signed.

Three years after the Starbucks votes, there’s still no contract; Schultz continues to stonewall.

This is where Congress comes in. Successive revisions of the Wagner Act have left a highly unequal playing field, with management having huge advantages in basic procedures, and the ability to stall endlessly after organizing votes.

If Biden is reelected, he must make this a much higher priority.

For though Republicans are now universally hostile, many Democrats are too.

Witness Maine Gov. Janet Mills. In 2021, she vetoed a modest measure that would have allowed agricultural workers to organize after holding the bill for months.


This year, she vetoed a bill to offer the state minimum wage to farm workers, without overtime provisions — even though 31 states already do so, and her office was party to negotiations.

It will be a long, hard fight, no doubt. But we were all laborers once; very few were born to inherited wealth.

We might want to remember that come voting time.


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