Op-Ed: The Future Of Labor Day Sept. 5 is Labor Day in name only, E.J. Dionne argues in The Washington Post. It's just a matter of time, he says, before Labor Day falls off the calendar. But, while it remains "it should shame us about our cool indifference to the heroism of those who go to work every day."
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Op-Ed: The Future Of Labor Day

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Op-Ed: The Future Of Labor Day

Op-Ed: The Future Of Labor Day

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NEAL CONAN, host: And now, The Opinion Page. This Labor Day, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne suggests that we might as well rename the holiday. As news coverage of unions and workers gives way to play-by-play reports of markets and finances, portrayals of workers in the media fades. Dionne writes we might as well get it over with and rename the holiday Capital Day. So whether you're at work, off for the day or out of work, call and tell us who tells your story. The phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. E.J. Dionne joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be here.

CONAN: And you write in your piece that the stories of workers that used to be told in "The Honeymooners" of the Kramdens and on a literary level by Steinbeck and Dos Passos, we don't hear those stories anymore.

DIONNE: We don't pay attention to the world of work the way we once did, either in the culture or in the media. We used to have lots and lots of labor reporters who did a serious job covering the lives of working people, as well as the unions. And somebody might say, OK, well, the unions aren't as important as they used to be, which is...

CONAN: Or as big as they used to be.

DIONNE: ...or as big as they used to be. But those labor reporters weren't replaced by reporters, you know, the labor beat wasn't replaced by a work beat. And so, you know, the worker in American life is largely invisible. Meanwhile, CNBC and all the other financial shows cover finance the way ESPN covers sports, and you get off-field interviews with the big financiers, and you get all the statistics the way you get ERAs in baseball or on-base percentages. And we just have lost, I think, a sense of how hard people work in the country, and we've lost respect for it.

CONAN: Lost respect - the holiday is generally regarded as a day for barbecues and then shopping.

DIONNE: Right. And there's nothing wrong with barbecues and shopping, but we also used to remember that this was about the work people did. For fun, I started the column quoting this very radical statement. It was 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. Now, is that some famous socialist? No. That was Abraham Lincoln in his address to Congress. It was - he didn't speak it. He wrote it - his address to Congress in 1861.

President Obama, no matter how progressive he is this week, is not going to come close to expressing that labor theory of value. And now, we seemed to - we talk about capital, and capital is important. But we talk about people providing capital as the job creators, as the people who are creative. We used to look at workers as creative people in this economy. They still are, but we don't give them the time of day.

CONAN: And on the other end of the media spectrum, the Steinbecks and Dos Passoses aren't - they're not there.

DIONNE: They're not there. I mean, there are people, you know, John Sayles. There are people who try to write about this. So I was thinking, for example, two great movies recently that do have working-class themes. And here I betray my Massachusetts bias, but you had both "The Fighter" and "Good Will Hunting," and that is something about working-class life. You could feel the life in the mill towns of Massachusetts. But in both cases, they are one standard American theme, which is somehow rising up out of the working class.

Whereas we used to celebrate the fact that, yes, people wanted to - wanted their kids to advance, but we honored the people who are in the working class. You know, it's a schmaltzy movie, but I still love it - "It's a Wonderful Life." And...


DIONNE: ...in "It's a Wonderful Life," we honor the working people of Bedford Falls. They were important characters in that movie. And the banker we like was the banker who wanted to help working people own their stake in the society.

CONAN: And not leverage their houses beyond - well, nobody went underwater in Bedford Falls.

DIONNE: Right. Well, Mr. Potter, I guess, would have been the guy who would have leverage the houses and made them disappear.

CONAN: But why is it do you think that we seemed to report off a lot on consumers and not so much on workers?

DIONNE: Well, some of it is the decline of factory - big factory work. We still have more manufacturing workers in the country than we realize, but we don't have the big - the auto plants aren't as big as they used to be. A lot of jobs have been off-shored. The steel plants aren't as big as they used to be. And I don't think we've adjusted to covering the service economy, the workers in that economy, in the same way we used to cover the industrial workers.

My friend Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical, used to talk about Burger King Mom. You know, at the moment, when we were talking all the time about soccer mom, an honorable figure - I was just at my daughter's soccer game this morning - but mostly a middle or upper middle class figure. He talks about the woman he ran into a Burger King who was serving people burgers while her two kids are in the corner doing homework. And she was working hard to support those kids, couldn't afford a babysitter, but wanted to keep an eye on them. And we don't talk about her very much. We don't talk about people in that situation very much in this society.

CONAN: We're talking with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post who, I think, somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggested that the Labor Day moniker is not long for this world.

DIONNE: Right. Well, in fact - I mean, we have lost the original meaning of the holiday, as you suggested at the beginning of the show. And if we continue to show what I think is this disrespect for the work that working people do, it may only be a matter of time. I don't think they'll admit it outright and call it capital day, but that's where we seem to be headed.

CONAN: We want to hear from you. If you're a worker off for the day, at work like me, or like E.J., or if you're out of work at the moment, give us a call. Who tells your story? Where do you see your story represented in the media? 800-989-8255, email, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with VJ(ph), VJ with us from Macon in Georgia.

VJ: Hello.


VJ: I agree with E.J. Dionne. I think it should be called capital day. I have three degrees. I lost my job in 2004 - I was teaching art - because they had to have a reading instructor. OK. Since then I have done any number of minimum-wage jobs and they all suck.

They're hard. People are rude. The management is rude. The owners are rude. I make 3.25 per room for cleaning motel rooms. And the way people are treated with whom I work, they have no voice. They have no recourse. It's dreadful and it's very hard. So nobody speaks up for the poor that I can see in this culture, no one.

CONAN: I hear VJ's story, E.J., and I think of Barbara Ehrenreich book, "Nickel and Dimed."

DIONNE: That's exactly what I was thinking, Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote a great book where she took...

VJ: "Nickels and Dimed"?

CONAN: "Nickel Dimed," yeah.

DIONNE: "Nickel and Dimed."

VJ: Yes. I know the book well.


CONAN: And it sounds like you're living it.

VJ: Yes. But she was doing it to write a story. I'm been doing because of circumstance. You guys, you have no idea how people are treated. It's - it breaks my heart. I work with salt-of-the-earth people who worked so hard. There's no way to get ahead. At 3.25 a room - $3.25 a room, now come on.

DIONNE: All I can say to the caller is amen. I mean, I think that she's capturing something very, very important. And you know, there are two issues here. One is pay, and there are an awful of low-paid people in the country. And, you know, people talk about - you know, there was a demonization of people on welfare, but these are people who are working very hard to try to make ends meet. But pay is linked to something else, which VJ just hit upon that's so important, which is respect. And again, we've never been a perfect country toward working people. You know, we can romanticize the '30s and '40s, I know I do it sometime. But still, I think that the - we probably have less respect than we used to for the people who do that hard work.

If you remember that great Jessie Jackson speech, I guess it was the '88 convention, a Democratic convention where he did this litany where he ended his - each refrain was they work every day. We don't pay much attention to people who work every day.

CONAN: VJ, thank you very much for the call.

DIONNE: Thank you, ma'am.

CONAN: Good luck.

VJ: Goodbye. Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Chris and Chris on the line with us from Wellington in Florida.

CHRIS: Hi there.


CHRIS: You know, I really like to hear the quote from Lincoln that E.J. came up with about labor preceding capital. And I'm a professional engineer, and I've really seen sort of the economy writ large in the company that I work for, where the engineers literally create the wealth of the company. We're a large computer manufacturer. And as I said, the engineers literally create the wealth, and yet we haven't seen a raise really to speak of in five years as they ship our jobs offshore. But middle and high level executive management are really raking in record-breaking profits year after year after year. We can definitely see where the productivity is going in the economy and it's not to the workers.

CONAN: And I take it this is not a union job.

CHRIS: It is not. Now, I - you know, I'm surrounded by rather, you know, conservative-leaning folks, but I grew up in construction and am, you know, very sympathetic to the union movement, but I've never actually had the opportunity to work in a union in the U.S.

CONAN: And that's another part of the piece that you wrote about, E.J., is that unions, yes, diminished but diminished for a reason.

DIONNE: Well, they diminished in part because they were particularly successful in certain kinds of work: steel, autos, big factories. They diminished as well because unions did not have the protections in law that they had in their heyday during the New Deal, when union organizers could go out and say of President Roosevelt, the president wants you to join. And we have at this moment a slight shift in the National Labor Relations Board that's a little more sympathetic to unions. And look at the attack the NLRB is now under because it's suddenly showing some sympathy for the idea that if people want to join a union, they ought to be able to.

But I thought the caller's point is interesting, and it's something else that's happening at work where even relatively well-paid professional people are also looking for a little bit more autonomy. People who are professionals want the ability to do the job right. They're not looking for concessions on work rules so they work less. They just want some autonomy so they can do the job right. And there's a movement where both unionized and non-unionized professional workers are trying to establish standards where they can live up to the standards that they think they should live up to as professionals.

CONAN: Chris, thanks for the call.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with E.J. Dionne about his opinion piece that was published in today's Washington Post. "The Last Labor Day," it's titled. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we're asking listeners and callers and emailers to say where they hear their story told today, if they're workers. And here's an email from Arch(ph) in Ponte Verde Beach in Florida: Two words, "The Help." Have you seen the new movie?

DIONNE: No, I have not. I have not. I have to. And you know, when I talked in the - when I was writing those sentences - I mean, people should know that a lot of columnists, when they write sentences, one of the first things they think about is, OK, what will be wrong with this sentence...


DIONNE: ...when this column appears? And I tried to be careful and not say that we never ever do these things. I just think that there was in the culture just a much stronger presence of working people and working class voices. Jefferson Cowie wrote this great book recently, last year, called "Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class," and he lists all of the TV shows that in some sense had a deeply social theme in the early '70s - we're not talking here about the '30s and '40s - you know, "The Waltons," "Welcome Back, Kotter," "Good Times," "Stanford and Sons," "The Jeffersons," "Laverne and Shirley," "One Day at a Time." And some of that stuff is going on in the media and obviously you have more choice these days. So, yes, there's some of it, but I don't think it's as important a part of the culture as it used to be.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jackie(ph), Jackie with us from Iowa City.

JACKIE: Hey. I'm glad to be on your show, and I'm a really huge fan of Mr. Dionne.

DIONNE: Oh, bless you. Thank you. Happy Labor Day while it still exists.


JACKIE: Happy Labor Day since I have a child. I just wanted to say that, well, I'm a professor but I wasn't always a professor. I was one of those folks who was - I was factory worker and a waitress for a long time before I went to - and during the time I did my undergraduate work. And so my being a professor is sort of like my second or third career at this point. And I've seen, like, the whole gamut of experience to be a professional person and also to be a factory worker back in the day. And I worked in a factory with my mother who was - we worked in sewing factories. She learned to be a seamstress in the federal Indian boarding school system in Oklahoma, and so she was able to get me a job in a factory.

You know, my mom - my parents wanted me to go to college, but my mom used to always tell me when I was growing up, she would say, sister, I don't care if you're nothing but a ditch digger. You just be the best ditch digger you can be.


DIONNE: Sounds like you have a wonderful mom.

JACKIE: Well, she was kind of - you know, she had her issues, but, yes, she had her...


JACKIE: ...yeah, she had her strengths. And so what I want to say is that I'm - you know, I have children who are 23 and 25, and they work in crap jobs and they get treated badly, like the woman who's cleaning rooms, and dealing with the public. And I teach young people in undergraduate classes and I'm just sort of overwhelmed in my daily life by, you know, just the specter of what's happening to young people. They're working too many hours to go to school. They're going to school feeling like a chump because they're not going to be able to get a job when they're done, and they're going to have outrageous numbers of loans.

And I think that generally, I - my opinion is that - because I came from this background where working very, very hard - I come from a working class family. I come from - my dad was from a tenant farming family in Alabama - where being a hard worker today is being a chump. And there's no honor in - I mean, you're not going to be honored for being a hard worker. And so I wanted to make that point.

And number two, I wanted to say that I happened to have a really awesome colleague who's a very senior person in his field of labor history. And I do want to make a few points. One is that...

CONAN: And very quickly because we're running out of time, Jackie.

JACKIE: ...very quickly, that we do see the history of laboring people in scholarship, and I think that that's just something that is a good thing. So thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jackie. Thanks for the story. We appreciate it.

DIONNE: You know, I appreciate the story. I grew up in a textile town, Fall River, Massachusetts. One thing people forget - we talk about women entering the labor force in the '60s and '70s. In my town, 42 percent of the labor force was female back in 1960, because so many of the people working in those factories were women.

I was also touched by the mention of how many kids have to work their way through school now, especially from working class families. I was honored this year to be able to talk at Bristol Community College in my hometown of Fall River. The president asked people, how many of you work your way through here? More than half the hands went up. How many are you the first generation in college? More than half the hands went up. A lot of people still work hard whether it's honored or not.

CONAN: And we'd like to honor all of you, like me, working today. E.J., thanks very much for being with us.

DIONNE: It's great to be with you. Thank you.

CONAN: E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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