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American job prospects make for dim May Day celebration

For working America, the trend over the last few decades has been toward lower wages, fewer workplace rights, and diminished voice in the public sphere.
Arizona union supporters gather in support of comprehensive immigration reform outside the Arizona State Capitol building on March 11, 2013, in Phoenix. The rally, organized by the AFL-CIO, was the last of a national tour in support of immigration...
Arizona union supporters gather in support of comprehensive immigration reform outside the Arizona State Capitol building on March 11, 2013, in Phoenix. The...

For working America, the trend over the last few decades has been toward lower wages, fewer workplace rights, and diminished voice in the public sphere.

The relative obscurity of the annual May 1 International Workers' Day celebration in the United States is perhaps emblematic of just how marginal working class concerns have become to the country's political order.

The very first Labor Day, or International Workers' Day (also known as May Day), took place on May 1, 1886, as a celebration of the burgeoning American labor movement and its long battle to institute the 8-hour work day. But 127 years later, the United States is one of the few developed nations not to observe Labor Day on that particular date.

May Day's radical legacy lives on in countries with recent histories of class conflict. In Greece, workers staged a general strike in protest of their government’s latest round of austerity measures. Thousands more marched in Bangladesh to protest the conditions which led to the recent deadly factory collapse. And in Istanbul, Turkish police fired tear gas on protesters who had assembled in Taksim Square against the wishes of the government. While not every rally was as dramatic, countless more protesters and activists took to the streets and public squares of cities around the world.

In the United States, the labor federation AFL-CIO helped to organize more than 50 May Day actions around the country, in part to support their major push for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship. Occupy Wall Street will also hold actions throughout the day at various locations around New York City, including protests to “demand an end to exploitation of immigrant workers” and to “Save The People’s Post Office.”

But to most of the nation's working people, it will just be another day.

Here is some of what the working class has endured over the past year in the United States.:

1) Historically low labor force participation

Labor force participation in the most recent jobs report was at its lowest in nearly four decades. That means a historic number of Americans were not only out of work, but had given up looking for work entirely. While a few voices in the center and on the right have blamed social welfare policies like disability insurance for ostensibly reducing recipients' incentive to look for work, the likelier culprit is long-term unemployment.

Nearly 40% of the unemployed have been out of work for 27 weeks or more, and it seems that more and more people are giving up on ever being employed again. Given the current economic climate, they might not be wrong: a recent study by economists from the Boston Federal Reserve and Northeastern University suggests that employers are unlikely to even consider applicants who have been out of work for over six months.

2) Record low union participation

Those Americans still in the labor force aren't doing especially well, either. The number of Americans who belong to a union continued its steady, half-century decline in 2012, reaching a new low of 6.6% in the private sector and 11.3% overall. Union members continued to earn significantly more than non-union members: an average of $943 in weekly earnings versus $742 for everybody else.

3) The available jobs are getting worse

Going hand in hand with the decline of organized labor, much of the economy recovery's job growth has been concentrated [PDF] in low-wage occupations. Cheap retail and service-sector labor has come to replace manufacturing as the bedrock industry of the American economy. While manufacturing jobs are gradually returning to the United States, they tend to be non-union and pay lower real wages than the jobs the industry once had.

3) Mass public-sector layoffs

Since the beginning of the Great Recession, hundreds of thousands of public sector employees have lost their jobs as state and local governments cut labor costs to deal with massive budget shortfalls. While in early 2013 it seemed like the bloodletting might have been "bottoming out," the sequester changed that. It's unclear exactly how many more public sector workers could lose their jobs due to sequester-forced budget cuts, but the National Education Association estimates that public school educators—who have already lost 300,000 jobs since 2009—could experience over 50,000 further layoffs.

4) A tidal wave of anti-union legislation

Anti-union activists on the state level have been largely successful in dismantling the remains of workers' rights to union representation. The most extreme example is in Michigan, where the lame duck Republican legislature successfully passed "right-to-work" legislation outlawing automatic union dues deduction.

Nor did they stop there. Several Michigan school districts and cities, most recently Detroit, have been put under Emergency Management by the state, meaning that they are now governed by unelected Emergency Managers who have the power to unilaterally revise or tear up union contracts. Unsurprisingly, many Emergency Managers have used that power to lay off public sector workers or force them to swallow wage and benefit cuts.

5) The steady erosion of workplace safety enforcement

The fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, which claimed 14 lives and left hundreds more wounded or homeless didn't just come out of nowhere: it turns out that the plant had prior run-ins with regulatory agencies over its lack of basic safety precautions such as sprinklers. But despite all of that, the West Fertilizer Co. was allowed to continue operating with minimal oversight.

In fact, the last time the plant had been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was in 1985That's because OSHA is notoriously underfunded and understaffed, so much so that it would take them about 67 years to inspect every workplace in America.

Despite that, there's been no push to improve workplace safety oversight on the federal level. Instead, across-the-board sequester cuts have thinned out America's anemic regulatory state even further. Meanwhile, a decision from the DC Circuit Court has put the legal status of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in question by declaring three recess appointees to the board invalid. While the NLRB contests that decision, the DC Circuit Court has given employers a huge opening to legally challenge attempts to enforce any NLRB ruling they deem unfavorable.

One hopeful sign: Low-wage worker uprisings

If there's one positive trend for labor going into this year's May Day, it's the uptick in labor militancy and activism among the country's lowest-paid workers. Fast food workers, who rank among the most poorly compensated workers in America, have gone on strike twice in New York City and once, alongside retail workers, in Chicago. Around the same time, McDonald's guest workers in central Pennsylvania staged a surprise strike to protest miserable working conditions and sub-minimum wage pay. The day after Thanksgiving 2012, Walmart workers across the country held a historic strike of their own.

While Walmart and McDonald's have little to fear just yet, this sort of persistent, low-level agitation is a rare source of pressure for them. It doesn't just put the plight of low-wage employees in the media spotlight; it also sends unpredictable shocks through corporate outlets and supply chains. Given state and federal legislative trends, that sort of grassroots activity might be the last, best chance workers have of halting the nationwide decline in wages and labor protections.