What in the world does Labor Day have to do with global poverty and inequity?
At Humanosphere, we focus on various efforts aimed at reducing poverty or inequity — mostly in the developing world — which include fighting impoverishing diseases, increasing economic productivity, improving human rights and so on.
Today is Labor Day, which the U.S. Department of Labor says was created by the American labor movement and is “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”
That’s not quite accurate. It was actually a holiday created by President Grover Cleveland to try to make peace with the American labor movement after Cleveland, in 1894, sent the military and U.S. marshals to break up the Pullman Strike — which resulted in 13 deaths, dozens wounded and a massive retaliatory riot by workers.
This year, of course, Labor Day is mostly occasion to pay tribute to our nation’s massive problem of unemployment caused by the economic slowdown. Obama gave a “jobs speech” today in Detroit.
So why, given our domestic problems, should we be paying attention to the rest of the world on Labor Day? The answer, in short, is that our economic well-being and future is increasingly dependent upon recognizing that the economy today is a global organism.
As the U.S. State Department’s representative of International Labor Affairs, Barbara Shailor, noted on its website devoted to human rights issues, the current upheaval in many Arab nations was prompted by the global economic slowdown and joblessness:
We cannot build a stable, global economy when hundreds of millions of workers and families find themselves on the wrong side of globalization, cut off from markets and out of reach of modern technologies… And we cannot advance democracy and human rights when hunger and poverty threaten to undermine the good governance and rule of law needed to make those rights real.
This is why our efforts to promote labor diplomacy are focused on ensuring that the global economy is working for everyone. This includes advocating for dignity at work and recognizing that honest labor, fairly compensated, gives meaning and structure to people’s lives and enables every family and all children to rise as far as their talents will take them.
Promoting jobs worldwide and thinking globally isn’t just the right thing to do, says Michael Clemens, with the Center for Global Development. Writing in The Guardian, Clemens says it is clearly the smart thing to do. And the first thing he says we should do is stop trying to protect American jobs by restricting immigration:
The world impoverishes itself much more through blocking international migration than any other single class of international policy. A modest relaxation of barriers to human mobility between countries would bring more global economic prosperity than the total elimination of all remaining policy barriers to goods trade – every tariff, every quota – plus the elimination of every last restriction on the free movement of capital ….
Many people fear that even a minor increase in international migration will wreck their own economies and societies. Those fears deserve a hearing. They are old fears, of the kind that filled US newspapers a century ago. The US population subsequently quadrupled, largely through immigration to already-settled areas. Today, even in crisis, America is the richest country in the world. History, too, deserves a hearing.
Yeah, sometimes it does help to know a little history.
On this day that many traditionally think of more as the official end of summer, let’s not forget to give tribute in these difficult times to American labor — and to all the workers who have made our nation what it is today, here and abroad.