Job seeker Chris James waited four hours in line for a job fair at the new W Hotel in Hollywood, California. (Photo: Fred Prouser / Reuters Pictures)
It's Labor Day and the American worker doesn't have a lot to celebrate.
Unemployment stands at 9.7 percent-that's 15 million people out of work, officially, and millions more unofficially.
"Nearly one in six workers are now unemployed or underemployed," notes the Economic Policy Institute.
Many of those who are lucky enough to still have work have seen their hours and benefits cut back, or have been forced to take unpaid furloughs. Twenty percent of companies have suspended their contributions to 401(k) plans or other pensions.
And wages are stagnant, and have been for some time.
Going all the way back to 2000, wages have grown less than 1 percent a year, adjusted for inflation, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Meantime, the richest Americans have seen their wealth skyrocket, so much so that now we have widest gap between the rich and the poor since 1929.
One way to narrow the gap is through progressive taxation and a robust estate tax.
Another way to help workers and narrow this gap is to make it easier for unions to organize. That's what the AFL is trying to do by pushing the Employee Free Choice Act. And simply enforcing existing labor law by going after companies that wantonly violate it would make a big difference.
The fact is, being in a union increases your wages, to say nothing of your benefits and workplace protections.
"In 2008, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $886 while those who were not represented by unions had median weekly earnings of $691," according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Still another way to help workers is to have the government employ more people: An aggressive public works program by the federal government would help enormously, as would increased federal revenue sharing with the states, which have had to shed so many employees this year.
But one of the reasons Republicans are so against public sector employment is because they hate unions, and the public sector is the most unionized.
"Government workers were nearly five times more likely to belong to a union than were private sector employees," the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted.
Obama and the Democrats have a chance to improve the lives of working people.
But if they cave on the necessary policy changes, next Labor Day may be even grimmer than this one.