A More Productive Labor Day

September 06, 1993

Today is the 100th celebration of Labor Day as a national holiday, a tribute to American working people declared by President Grover Cleveland in 1894, after most states had already done so.

Originated by the New York Carpenters union, Labor Day is not just a celebration of organized labor but of all labor. Like other holidays, it has become a seasonal observance with a fuzzier focus: the end of summer and vacation season, the beginning of fall and (until recently) a new school year.

It's also a traditional time to assess the state of labor in our country. For U.S. labor unions, the past year brought more of the same: organizing gains in governmental and service sectors, but continued slippage in the percentage of U.S. working people they represent. A new president promised them more, but is pushing for a North American Free Trade Agreement they bitterly oppose.

For most working Americans, the outlook is not optimistic. The purchasing power of their wages has been deteriorating, and the amount of work available is down. Many live below the official poverty line. Most new jobs are found in the low-wage sectors, the living-standard gap between less skilled and better educated widens. Two-worker families seem necessary to keep the American economic dream alive.

One in 14 willing workers is without a job, and it takes the unemployed longer and longer to find work. Military cutbacks have trimmed 400,000 jobs this year and an equal number set for 1994. Since 1980, the U.S. has lost 2.5 million manufacturing jobs to Asia and Latin America.

The good news is that U.S. manufacturing is becoming more competitive. Exports have doubled since 1985. American workers remain the most productive in the world and continue to rank high in yearly productivity gains.

But higher productivity doesn't mean higher employment: it's often the result of new technology and capital investment, leaner down-sized work forces, frozen wages and a weaker dollar. Since 1979, the U.S. ranks ninth of 11 industrial nations in growth of pay and benefits. Meanwhile, U.S. corporate executive pay leads the world, and corporate profits outpace overall U.S. economic growth.

America's future for real economic and job growth lies in better and more relevant education, emphasis on a global economy instead of internal markets, effective retraining of current workers, and greater management-labor cooperation.

These tonics are well known, but are difficult to swallow. They are not the sugar-coated nostrums peddled by politicians who falsely promise millions of new jobs now. Necessary remedies require a national and personal commitment that extends long term, beyond the fleeting oratory, parades and picnics of recent Labor Days.

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