Reflecting on a ‘cultural shift’ on Labor Day

In an 1861 address to Congress, Abraham Lincoln said, “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. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”*

One assumes, if President Obama said the same thing, Republicans would immediately brand him a socialist. Hell, they’ve already branded him a socialist for adopting policies moderate Republicans found reasonable in the 1990s.

Similarly, Pope John Paul II offered a powerful argument in support of worker protections in 1981, not only agreeing with Lincoln’s approach that prioritizes “labor over capital,” but also writing that unions “grew up from the struggle of the workers … to protect their just rights vis-a-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production,” or to insist that “the experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life.”

As E.J. Dionne Jr. explains this Labor Day, an “enormous cultural shift” makes the quotes from Lincoln and John Paul seem needlessly out of place in the contemporary landscape.

In scores of different ways, we paint investors as the heroes and workers as the sideshow. We tax the fruits of labor more vigorously than we tax the gains from capital — resistance to continuing the payroll tax cut is a case in point — and we hide workers away while lavishing attention on those who make their livings by moving money around.

Consider that what the media call economics reporting is largely finance reporting. Once upon a time, a lively band of labor reporters covered the world of work and unions. If you stipulate that the decline of unions makes the old labor beat a bit less compelling, there are still tens of millions of workers who do their jobs every day. But when the labor beat withered, it was rarely replaced by a work beat. Workers have vanished.

But we are now inundated with news (and “news”) about the world of capital. CNBC and the other financial media are for investors what ESPN is for sports junkies. We cheer the markets, learn the obscure language of hedge fund managers and get to know some of the big investors in off-field interviews. Workers are regarded as factors of production. At best, they’re consumers; at worst, they’re “labor costs” cutting into profits and the sacred stock price. […]

With the worker disappearing from our media and our consciousness, isn’t it only a matter of time before Labor Day falls off the calendar? As long as it’s there, it should shame us about our cool indifference to the heroism of those who go to work every day.

Hostility towards workers isn’t new, especially from the right, but given the recent shift in the political winds, it’s getting more intense. When congressional Republicans talk about eliminating “regulations” as a central facet of their economic policy, they’re often talking about scrapping safeguards intended to protect workers. When Republican governors target collective bargaining rights, they’re not even being subtle about attacking unions, usually school teachers. When there are disputes over trade agreements, GOP officials generally refuse to even consider measures with Democratic provisions providing federal assistance to displaced workers.

And if there’s a Republican White House in 2013, responsible for enforcing existing labor protections, we can expect conditions to deteriorate further.

Enjoy Labor Day, my friends, while it lasts.

* Update: I’d originally written that Lincoln’s quote was from his Inaugural Address, rather than what was effectively his first State of the Union. The above text has been corrected.