With summer officially over, it was an appropriate time for business journalists to take a look at the state of labor. The New York Times Economix blog wrote a piece about the unemployment rate and how the holiday wouldn’t necessarily be one of celebration for some people:
The annual holiday supposedly celebrating labor has long lacked much celebratory feel. Over the last 30 years, employment has become more precarious and real wages for most workers have stagnated. Since 2008, in particular, the corrosive impact of persistent unemployment and declining wages on American workers has been felt at holiday picnics and parades.
The seasonally adjusted July unemployment rate of 7.4 percent showed a slight decline from last year’s 8.2 percent, but the gains came largely as a result of declining labor force participation rather than job creation.
The larger measure of underemployment (known as U-6) that includes people working part time because they cannot find full-time work, and those who want a job and have looked for one in the last 12 months but have given up currently looking, was a seasonally adjusted 14 percent in July, compared with 14.9 percent a year earlier.
Public policies could help. As Jared Bernstein explained in an earlier Economix post, the federal government could become an employer of last resort. A new report from the Urban Institute outlines several specific strategies to lower long-term unemployment in particular.
Why is there so little political will to put such policies in place?
Republicans in the House of Representatives continue to staunchly oppose public efforts to reduce unemployment, repeating their assertion that government policies themselves are the primary cause of the problem. Earlier this summer 30 of them even co-sponsored a bill that would strike the goal of encouraging “maximum employment” from the mission of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve.
The Wall Street Journal chronicled what labor leaders were saying ahead of the holiday – and much of the news wasn’t great for organizations like unions that are struggling to connect with a new generation of workers:
In the run-up to Labor Day, organized labor’s top official, Richard Trumka, blamed some employers for some of unions’ declining membership numbers, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s labor guru, Randy Johnson, blamed unions for offering a product most workers don’t want.
At the Labor Department, Labor Secretary Tom Perez called for a common agenda “to unleash the economy’s full potential” and “secure a better bargain for the middle class and expand opportunities for everyone.”
Mr. Perez, who shared his vision in a pair of Labor Day blog posts and a video Friday, didn’t specifically cite business or unions as the parties who need to find common ground. But clearly, their differences on everything from wages to government regulation could thwart what he said must be a common agenda of creating “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Mr. Trumka told reporters over breakfast in Washington Thursday that wages and workplace safety remain big concerns. “You still have most Americans working harder and longer,” he said. “Their wages are still stagnated. The job creation we see is primarily in the low-wage industry and we still have the exploitation of aspiring citizens who are forced to work in poor and unsafe conditions.”
Mr. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions, also said unions are in a crisis mode, partly because of employers “who will take advantage of every loophole to prevent people from having a voice on the job” to organize.
The Chamber’s Mr. Johnson, who also spoke Thursday, told reporters at the business group’s annual Labor Day briefing that employers are “treating their workers fairly well and most employees do not see the need for union representation–much less the desire to pay mandatory dues.”
USA Today reported that Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said that it was fitting that some workers were striking for higher wages so close to the holiday:
The fast-food workers who have been walking off the job in cities nationwide in a push for higher wages are heirs to the civil-rights demonstrators of a half-century ago, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in an interview as Labor Day approaches. He said employers who warn the move to raise pay could cost jobs are offering a “false choice.”
The striking workers, at chains such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell, want their pay raised to $15 an hour, more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. In his State of the Union Address this year, President Obama proposed raising the minimum wage to $9 and tying it to inflation, but so far the proposals have gone nowhere in Congress.
“The strikes are fitting in that they would occur in such close proximity to the March on Washington,” Perez said in his first newspaper interview since taking office last month. “It was a march for economic justice … and one of their demands was better wages.”
Perez, appearing on USA TODAY’s Capital Download video newsmaker series, spoke favorably about a “living wage” bill — passed by the City Council in the District of Columbia and now on Mayor Vincent Gray’s desk — that would require large retailers to pay workers $12.50 an hour, a 50% premium over the city’s minimum wage. Wal-Mart, the target of the bill, warns it won’t go ahead with plans to build three stores in D.C. if the measure becomes law.
“It’s a false choice to say we either have job safety or job growth,” Perez said. “It’s a false choice to suggest that the only way for a business to survive is to make sure workers have low wages and little or no benefits. There are ample models across this country where we’ve demonstrated the contrary.”
So, as we attend our cookouts, drive back from vacation or take a break from our day jobs, it’s important to remember that the struggle of workers everywhere will always be an important business story. It’s covering all angles and all types of workers that make the media such an important part of the equation.