Labor Day: Little to Celebrate, Much to Do

Labor Day gives us all a chance each year (in the midst of last-gasp summer vacations and family barbecues) to reflect on the state of the American workplace, and the role each of us play in working to improve it. It also gives workplace reporters and pundits a chance to assess where we’re at, and political leaders a chance to score points with the working public. However, this year, only President Bush had much that was positive to say, while everyone else deeply lamented the sorry state we’re in.

Here are just a few of the kinds of statistics that cannot help but induce despair, from a New York Post column by John Crudele:

* The experts expect Washington to report on Friday that 10,000 new jobs were created in August and that the unemployment rate held steady at 6.2 percent. Those would be the first new jobs created since last January. But the statistical margin of error for the new jobs survey is plus or minus 156,000, and plus or minus 0.2 percent of the unemployment rate. In other words, 10,000 jobs are meaningless from a statistical point of view.

* According to the government survey of companies, there have been 2,690,000 jobs lost since the peak in employment in February 2001. That was the first full month of the Bush administration.

* When the government surveyed companies in July, it found a drop of 44,000 jobs. But when it asked people in their homes if they had worked at least one hour in the previous month, job losses increased to 260,000.

* The unemployment rate for people at least 25 years old with at least an undergraduate degree from college is now 3.1 percent. It was 1.6 percent when Bush took office. The 3.1 percent is the highest since 1993, when the last recession was ending.

* The average length of unemployment is now 19.8 weeks. It was 12.8 weeks in February 2001. The current level is the highest since it reached 20.4 weeks in January 1984.

* The number of people unemployed for at least 27 weeks is 1,959,000. Back in January the number hit 2,036,000 – the worst since 1993. As comparison: Back in February 2000 the number of people unemployed for 27 or more weeks was just 708,000.

Or, you can simply sum up the situation like Carl Van Horn does. Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, says, “American workers are doing very badly. All the trends are in the negative direction. There’s high turnover, high instability, a reduction in benefits and a declining loyalty on the part of employers. At the same time, expectations for productivity and quality are going up. It’s a bad situation from a worker’s standpoint.” (See New York Times article.) This assessment is nothing new to the unemployed and underemployed who found it hard to celebrate anything about Labor Day. Some of their stories were featured in various news articles:

* Vicky Kitzman, laid off over a year ago from her $21.50-an-hour job as a computer engineer at WorldCom, now works for $7 an hour at a Colorado Springs amusement park, in a temporary, seasonal retail supervisor position with no benefits ending in December. At job interviews, she’s told she’s either overqualified or unqualified, but she begs to differ. “I haven’t found a job in over a year — how can I be overqualified?” said Kitzman, who has associates’ degrees in commercial art and computer programming and is taking classes at night to finish her bachelor’s in computer program management. (See USA Today article.)

* Ruby Giles of Maywood, Ill., was laid off from her nursing home job of 20 years in March 2001 when the nursing home shut down. Giles, 59, can’t find another full-time job with benefits either, and with high blood pressure and other health problems, can’t afford to retire. “I have a daughter who helps me out a lot,” Giles said. “But everything is so expensive. I worry because you just don’t know what to expect.” (See USA Today article.)

* John I. Brown earned $14.50 an hour as an inspector at the TRW factory in Cleveland that makes valves for automobile engines. After working there for five years, he has been unable to find another permanent job since he was laid off 15 months ago. “I feel bitter…Every week I send out three or four applications, but it’s not easy. Every time I look around, there’s another company going out of business or going overseas. Even white-collar workers have been losing their jobs.” (See New York Times article.)

Some leaders and reporters couldn’t even wait for Labor Day to provide their analysis. In anticipation of the day, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney commented, “We do not see a reason to be optimistic about the current economic situation…Far too many people are out of work and many have been out of work a long time….White-collar as well as blue-collar employees are losing jobs, and many of these jobs aren’t coming back.” (See USA Today article.) And for once, union and manufacturing leaders agreed: too many jobs are going overseas. Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer said that a flood of U.S. jobs are going overseas because of the massive trade deficit, which is running at an annual rate of $488.5 billion for the first six months of this year, and the National Association of Manufacturers, in its annual Labor Day report (PDF), called for “urgently needed policy changes….to forge a pro-growth, manufacturing agenda that levels the international playing field, reduces the domestic cost of production, and provides additional assistance to workers.”

For his part, the president responded, at a Labor Day rally in Ohio, by painting an optimistic view of the future. “Things are getting better,” Mr. Bush told the assembled crowd. Orders for goods are coming back to the country’s factories, the president said, and productivity is on the rise — though he acknowledged that was one reason jobs were disappearing. “The economy is beginning to grow,” he said, “and that’s what I’m interested in. I believe there are better days ahead.” (See New York Times article.). At the same rally, the President announced the creation of an assistant secretary of commerce for manufacturing. While the move was intended to reinforce his commitment to bringing back blue-collar jobs, it was also noted that the creation of the position is the kind of action that Republicans, when they were out of office, used to criticize. Only time will tell whether the president is right and better times are around the corner, but the outcome of the next election could depend on it.

Rather than remaining bogged in depression over the vastness of such depressing news, a far more effective approach is to get busy. It’s time to write letters to Congress as it returns from recess to decide key issues affecting the workplace, such as overtime pay and judicial nominations. Write to the editor of your local newspaper and make your opinion about these disturbing trends known. Support reforms making it easier to join unions, so that your workplace has a strong advocate for workers right there in the workplace. Whatever you decide to do, don’t simply do nothing, or we will never have anything for workers to celebrate on Labor Day, and the original activism which spawned the day will simply fade away like the summer whose end the day unofficially marks.

Additional Labor Day Commentary worth noting:

A Way to Break the Cycle of Servitude (Louis Uchitelle, New York Times):

Twenty percent of the work force — 26 million people — earn $8.23 an hour or less. Most of them are not teenagers snagging pocket money, but adults supporting families. With so little income, too many Americans are pushed into poverty, and getting out of this trap is increasingly difficult. As many studies have shown, rising income inequality has driven people apart. And low-wage workers, occupying the bottom rung in this ruptured society, have descended into what amounts to a servant class. It is not their work that makes them servants. We need factory assemblers, store clerks, child care workers and the telephone operators who field calls to “800” numbers, processing much of the nation’s commerce. What makes them servants is the miserable pay. Measuring status by wage, as many Americans do, no one — the employers of low-wage worker, the public or the low-wage workers themselves — seems to value this class of work. Promotion, or higher pay, would be a way out. Unfortunately, neither solution kicks in very often. More than in the past, low-wage workers are stuck in place.

Brother, Can You Spare a Day? (Edward T. O’Donnell, New York Times)

One hundred-twenty-one years ago Labor Day meant something more than a three-day weekend and the unofficial end of summer….many concerns that inspired the first Labor Day persist. Public distrust of corporations has spiked in recent years as a result of scandals in accounting and campaign finance and huge payouts to departing executives. Polls indicate that more and more Americans are worried about job security, health care costs and pension funding. Whether it all ultimately leads Americans to “Strike With the Ballot” remains to be seen. In the meantime Labor Day will presumably endure, an annual reminder of battles won and battles yet to be joined.

Labor Day 2003: Nothing to Celebrate (Mark Weisbrot, AlterNet)

If ever there was a Labor Day for American workers to celebrate, this sure isn’t the one. It’s now 30 years since the end of the “golden era” for American labor, which by most accounting ended in 1973. Over the past 30 years the productivity of the people whose brain and muscle creates the wealth of the world’s richest nation has grown by 66 percent. But the wage of the typical employee – the median wage – has grown by only 7 percent. This one statistic says more than the volumes of hype and tripe that will fill the papers and the air waves on Labor Day. It encapsulates the most massive redistribution of income in American history, from the poor, from workers, from former middle classes – to the rich and the super-rich. As billionaire Warren Buffett said to ABC’s Ted Koppel last month, “If it’s class warfare, my class is winning.”

Home Alone (Bob Herbert, New York Times)

Imagine if we had begun a program to rebuild our aging infrastructure — the highways, bridges, tunnels and dams, the water and sewage facilities, the airports and transit systems. Imagine on this Labor Day 2003 the number of good jobs that could be generated with that kind of long-term effort. All of these issues, if approached properly, are job creators, including the effort to reduce our energy dependence. The big hangup in the economic recovery we are supposed to be experiencing now is the continued joblessness and underemployment. A fellow I ran into recently in San Jose, Calif., Andy Fortuna, said: “I’ve got a college degree and I’m washing cars. I’m working, but I’d like a good job. If the idea is for business to employ as few people as possible and keep their pay as low as possible — well, how’s that good for me? Who speaks for me?” Wise investments along these lines have dual payoffs — they help us take care of critical national needs and they help sustain the high levels of employment that are needed to keep the nation’s high-powered consumer economy humming.

Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
Scroll to Top

Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.