Editorial: Celebrating Labor Day and the lost decade of wages

The Chicago Federation of Labor marches around the Hilton Chicago on , Labor Day 2011, Sept. 5. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times
The Chicago Federation of Labor marches around the Hilton Chicago on , Labor Day 2011, Sept. 5. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

Put your feet up Monday while the hamburgers sizzle on the grill. It’s Labor Day. You deserve a rest.

How are you doing, Average American Worker?

In a word, lousy.

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute found you’ve stood still financially for a decade. You already know that.

Between 2002 and 2013, wages were stagnant or declined for the entire bottom 70 percent of the wage distribution, the report concludes.

As if you needed someone to point out the truth, most wage earners experienced a lost decade, one where real wages were either flat or in decline.

People in the top 1 percent did great. Those in the bottom 5 percent did even worse than you.

The profits of more productive work — you’re the most productive group anywhere — once were sent to workers’ pockets, but now go to corporate bottom lines. You are working harder for the richest to get even richer.

How can this be?

That’s the right question to ask on Labor Day because someone is paying for the disproportionate benefits of work and profit.

You are.

If you are the second income earner in a home and surrender time with children to buy groceries, you are paying for it.

Until 1975, wages nearly always accounted for more than 50 percent of the nation’s Gross National Product, but last year wages fell to a record low of 43.5 percent. Since 2001, when the share was 49 percent, there has been a steep slide.

A sizable — and growing — chunk of overall wages goes to the top 1 percent: senior corporate executives, Wall Street professionals, Hollywood stars and professional athletes. The share of wages going to the top 1 percent has climbed to 13.1 percent, from 7.3 percent in 1979.

Celebrate Labor Day if you wish. But do not do so unmindful of solutions.

The useful answer begins with the right question.

Why do they deserve so much, and you get so little?

The political answer to that question is how change begins.

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