Labor Day, 1985

By Ferguson, Thomas; Rogers, Joel | The Nation, September 7, 1985 | Go to article overview

Labor Day, 1985


Ferguson, Thomas, Rogers, Joel, The Nation


American workers have little to celebrate this Labor Day. Thirty-three months out of the Reagan recession, the civilian unemployment rate stands at 7.3 percent, a record for this stage in an economic recovery. As usual, the black unemployment rate is twice the national average. The percentages represent 8.4 million officially unemployed American workers; counting discouraged workers and the underemployed, as the official statistics do not, the number of people working less than they want to comes to just under 20 million. These record rates of unemployment are accompanied by record lengths of duration. Over the past two years, the average period of unemployment has been 19.1 weeks, significantly higher than any other two-year average in the postwar period. Unemployment insurance coverage is also near record lows; less than one-third of the unemployed are now receiving benefits, as compared with roughly one-half in the 1970s. Despite this, Congress voted in April to discontinue the Federal supplemental unemployment benefits program initiated during the 1981-82 recession.

Those who are working are not doing so well either. Despite the record-shattering political business cycle engineered by the Reagan Administration, real average gross weekly earnings in 1984 stagnated at levels 12.5 percent below their 1972 peak. Close to 34 million Americans are still living below the poverty line; some 100 million live below the Bureau of Labor Statistics' "low standard city budget for a family of four." With growth slow and jobs vanishing under the pressures of a $150 billion trade deficit, there is little likelihood that the situation will improve substantially any time soon.

Unions are not doing much better. Average first-year wage increases in major private collective bargaining agreements set a record low at 2.4 percent last year, lagging, for the third year in a row, significantly behind inflation. This dismal bargaining performance in part reflects the spectacular decline in union membership over the Reagan years, a decline recently confirmed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports a 22.4 percent drop in unionization rates for the private sector from 1980 to 1984. Unions now claim only 15.6 percent of the private sector work force and an even smaller proportion in growth sectors like finance, insurance and real estate (2.7 percent), services (7.2 percent) and wholesale and retail trade (8.2 percent). This membership level cannot even be preserved, let alone strengthened, at the current rate of organizing. In 1984, for the third year in a row, unions organized fewer than 100,000 workers through representational elections before the National Labor Relations Board. Whatever organizing gains unions do achieve, their consolidation requires a credible threat of economic force, but the unions, visibly shaken by their losses over the past few years, are reluctant to risk a strike. As of July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics had reported only eighteen major strikes in the United States (defined as involving at least 1,000 workers and lasting at least one shift), the lowest level of strike activity on record. On average, during the 1960s and 1970s there were 285 major strikes per year.

Nor has the Reagan Administration diminished its assault on worker rights. At the N.L.R.B., the antiunion decisions continue. Since Reagan appointee Donald Dotson became chair, unions have lost an average of 57 percent of contested cases decided by the board (compared with 16 percent from 1974 to 1976, under the last Republican-dominated board) and have lost fully 86 percent of the cases brought against them. At the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as a massive recent study of the agency by the Office of Technology Assessment (O.T.A.) confirms, enforcement levels have slid to a point where they provide virtually no deterrent to violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The O.T.A. estimates, for example, that manufacturers who violate the act can expect, on average, a penalty of only $6.

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