Two sides of working American

Bush administration, organized labor paint different pictures of work force

Posted: Sunday, September 02, 2001

WASHINGTON Labor Secretary Elaine Chao says Americas work force this Labor Day weekend is stronger, safer and more skilled than ever. Organized labor offers a strikingly different picture: unhappy workers who distrust their employers.

The state of the work force is strong, Chao said Thursday in her first Labor Day address, which she delivered to business and government officials at a forum of the Council of Excellence in Government. But we can always do better, and we will if we focus on improving the lives of Americas working families.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce weighed in with a study that showed a half- million jobs were created in the past year, and wages of private, nonfarm workers increased 1.7 percent from a year ago.

According to an AFL-CIO poll, however, most workers think they need an improved job situation and dont trust their employers to treat them fairly.

American workers, this study finds, have issued a report card to corporate America and stamped it unsatisfactory, said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.

More than half of respondents said their wages, benefits and working conditions need a lot of or some improvements. Nearly two in three said they trust their employers only some or not at all.

The telephone poll was conducted July 5-9 by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, which surveyed 1,792 workers who were not business owners. It had an error margin of 3.5 percentage points.

Layoffs since the economic downturn have driven the nations unemployment rate from a 30-year-low of 3.9 percent last October to 4.5 percent in July. Many economists are predicting the jobless rate will continue to rise but will remain at or below 5 percent.

Chao said that unemployment represents a skills gap in the available jobs and workers training, demonstrating a need for job training and education.

A lot of Americans want to work, yet many of the jobs created by the economy go begging because employers cannot find qualified workers, she said.

In 1979, college graduates were paid 38 percent more than high school graduates. Now, college graduates earn 70 percent more, Chao said. The unemployment rate for a high-school dropout is nearly four times the rate for a college graduate.

The United States also faces a labor shortage in the coming years as the large baby boom generation starts to retire. Younger workers who will represent the future work force are more fluid, less tied down to one job and one career, she said.

Todays average 32-year-old already has changed jobs nine times from broke to flush, from worker to manager, from dreamer to company president and back again in less time than many of us spent on our first apprenticeship, she said.

But Sweeney said worker protections should be a priority. In the AFL-CIOs poll, only eight of 100 respondents knew what work rights exist. Most erroneously thought they have more rights than they do.

For example, nearly two-thirds wrongly said an employer could not legally fire an employee with a good performance record without a good reason. Three of five wrongly said an employer could not legally refuse to provide sick leave.

The poll also showed growing support for corporate responsibility laws that would hold corporations to higher standards in their treatment of employees. In April 1996, respondents were evenly divided about such laws. In July 2001, 56 percent said new laws should be passed while 35 percent were against it.

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