A Muted Celebration

September 05, 1994|By DANIEL CURTIN

There's not much to celebrate for American workers on Labor Day 1994. A union construction worker making just under $20 an hour earns less today, after adjustment for inflation, than on Labor Day 1965. This startling retreat in wages is not unique.

Those working in the retail trades, 19 million Americans, have seen their wages fall below 1950 levels. Manufacturing wages, long the backbone of the middle class, have sunk to 1970 rates.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Donald Bartlett and James Steele in their book ''America, What Went Wrong?'' point out that in the 1980s ''higher-paying jobs in manufacturing disappeared at a rate unmatched since the Great Depression.'' This economic shift, referred to as the ''deindustrialization of America,'' has resulted in retail workers for the first time outnumbering manufacturing workers. Shop clerks average less than half the wages of auto workers.

Unfortunately, advocates of corporate ''right-sizing'' have forgotten that American workers are also America's consumers.

In 1979 an American worker earning average wages had to work 23 weeks to buy an average-priced car. A decade later it took 32 weeks to buy an average-priced car. As the president of Chrysler put it: ''We're looking at the pooring of America.''

Forgotten too, it seems, is that American workers are also breadwinners for American families. The last two decades have not been kind to American families. Gone are the ''Ozzie and Harriet'' days when, in a ''traditional'' family, father provided enough income to support the household.

The Dunlop Commission's recently released report shows that almost 50 percent of today's American families have two full-time wage earners to maintain their modest standard of living. ''Traditional'' families, dominant in 1975, have dropped to just over 20 percent of American families. Today more families than that are headed by a single adult, mostly women, mostly poor.

In the 1980s American families saw their mortgage and consumer debt increase almost threefold. Average households now spend $3,500, 18 percent of their disposable income, just paying the interest on their debt. While family income for 80 percent of America's families actually declined in the 1980s, the top 1 percent increased their wealth by 50 percent.

Unlike the Great Depression, when high unemployment caused a dramatic decrease in the standard of living for many Americans, today's decline has been gradual. University of Nebraska economics professor Wallace Peterson calls it ''the silent depression.''

But not all Americans have suffered. According to Business Week's annual survey of executive pay levels, CEO compensation has shot through the roof. Just a mere 29 times average worker wages in 1979, today's corporate CEO earned an average of $3.8 million, about 149 times the average worker wage of $25,500. At the same time these daring entrepreneurs also managed to get their income-tax rate lowered by more than half. That's one burden they share about equally with their workers.

This astonishing rip-off by corporate America makes last century's Robber Barons look like Boy Scouts. Of all the industrial nations, the United States now has the largest income gap between the rich and the rest of society.

Where do American workers turn for help? After a decades-long slide, unions now represent only 12 percent of America's private-sector workers. In spite of all labor's ''muscle'' surrounding recent congressional battles, America is dangerously close to the union-free environment promoted by right-wing, anti-union forces.

No, workers don't have much to cheer about on Labor Day. Have I mentioned crime, deteriorating schools, the high cost of health care? Even the staid Dunlop Commission issues a sober warning: ''A healthy society cannot long continue along the path the U.S. is moving.'' Let's hope for a brighter Labor Day 1995.

Daniel Curtin is statewide lobbyist for the California State Council of Carpenters,United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

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