Labor Day 1992

September 07, 1992

Labor Day 1992 finds American workers less confident about themselves or their future than at any time since the Great Depression. They still enjoy the world's highest standard of living, but that standard is declining -- and with it that zesty optimism which has always powered the American dream. Clearly, the country needs to make painful adjustments from a war economy to a peace economy, from an era of unquestioned manufacturing dominance to one when even the service economy is under stress, from reliance on a huge internal market to an age when export capability will be controlling.

The current election campaign, with its daily barrage of negative catcalls, hardly helps the nation's mood. But it is serving to sharpen the focus on what needs to be done to turn things around. Much good can be found in the intense competition between Republican George Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton over proposals to retrain the American work force. Along with improving school systems and getting rid of antiquated management and union practices, this is the single-most promising escape hatch from the present morass.

What the U.S. needs with increasing urgency are more good jobs that provide sufficient income for a contented population. It is not getting them. Median weekly wages, in real terms, have declined from $409 in 1979 to $391 at present. High-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared, replaced by lower-paying service jobs. The two-earner family has become the norm as women have poured into the workplace to make ends meet.

Despite the glumness spawned by a recession that goes on and on, America remains the wonder of the world. Its people work longer and harder, achieving higher productivity, than even the vaunted Japanese and Germans. Americans top the charts on home ownership, cars per family, almost any index of material prosperity. Start-up companies, imbued with entrepreneurial spirit, remain the prime engine of job creation and trade competitiveness.

But trends are troubling, and herein lies the problem. Them-and-us labor-management relations can no longer be tolerated if the U.S. is to thrive, yet too many managers and too many labor leaders refuse to let the skills of workers flourish to the benefit of all. School systems remain underfinanced or in the grips of educationists who do not turn out kids who can read or do simple math. The income gap between college graduates and citizens who have only a high school education or less grows ever greater, thus leading to social tensions and increasing alienation between white suburbs and black inner cities.

Neither President Bush nor Governor Clinton will turn this situation around quickly. But it is the obligation of both to chart a course, and to carry through if elected, so that hope will replace fear and good old American optimism will prevail over the pessimism that shrouds this Labor Day.

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