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Labor Day: Working People Left Behind
by Joseph T. Hansen


September 06, 2004

Union members and workers from across the country are taking a well-earned pause today in the fight to put America back to work for working families. Labor Day 2004 is serving not so much as a vantage point to celebrate the past achievements of working people-though they are considerable-but to look ahead to Election Day, November 2, as labor's day to reaffirm America's promise. At stake in this fight is the future direction of our country. Either we'll go down the road where everyone's contribution to building a better America is recognized with a fair share of the economy's benefits, or we'll continue on the road of division and exclusion.

For the first time in 50 years, we have had economic growth that is leaving working people behind. Everywhere you turn, someone is losing their job, their health care coverage, or both. Most job hunts turn up low-wage, no-benefit jobs. Corporate profits are going up, but wages are down. Families are working longer and harder, but the promised reward of hard work-the uniquely American promise for a better life-is hardly being fulfilled.

Today, America is on the wrong track. Good jobs with decent benefits are disappearing. The number of higher-paying jobs has shrunk while new job growth is primarily in the low-wage, service and retail industries. In the higher paying manufacturing industry, two million jobs were lost in the past three years, and only 91,000 created this year. A recent Department of Labor survey of displaced workers found 57 percent were earning less than at their old job, and four out of ten factory workers hadn't even found a new job. When working families ask: are we better off in 2004 than we were four years ago, the most persistent answer is, no, we are not.

Wisconsin suffered big job losses, especially in the manufacturing sector, over the past three years. And Wisconsin workers are caught in the middle of the great job exchange where we trade good jobs with decent wages and benefits for low-wage, no benefit ones. The new jobs in Wisconsin and across the country pay $9,000 less, on average, than those that were lost.

While the number of good jobs shrinks, paychecks shrink too. Average hourly wages didn't keep up with inflation last year. Employer spending on wages and salaries grew at a snail's pace- slower than at any time since these numbers were tracked. Stagnant wages mean less money to spend on life's necessities and nothing for extras. Whether it's family time at a special Friday night dinner, new back-to-school clothes for the kids, or a trip to the ballpark, there's just less and less room in the budget.

Skyrocketing health care costs are taking a toll on everyone, including responsible employers. The cost of company-sponsored insurance plans increased more than twice the rate of wage costs last year. For workers the cost of health care coverage has increased four times the rate of inflation. These escalating costs are driving more and more employers to adopt the Wal-Mart approach which essentially is to let someone else pay. Less than 50 percent of Wal-Mart 1.2 million U.S. workers participate in the company's high employee cost, low benefit health plan. Those without company coverage must turn to taxpayer sponsored assistance or a spouse's employer for their medical coverage.

The Wal-Mart approach creates pressure on other employers to cut benefits and raise rates for workers. This approach drives up costs for taxpayers, responsible employers, and workers-while driving more and more families out of the health care system, and, in turn, exacerbating our health care crisis. In the last four years, the number of uninsured has grown by four million. More than 6,000 working families lost health care coverage each day in 2002. Sixty percent of working families in the bottom 40 percent of wage earners go without any health benefits at work.

U.S. workers are looking forward to Election Day because they know America can do better. We can have an America that cares about the families that make it great. We can have an America with its priorities focused on making sure that working in America means you can raise a family in America - an America where hard work means you don't have to worry about losing health care coverage instead of having to work two jobs to make ends meet. This year, Labor Day is a time for reflecting on changing our nation's priorities and restoring America's promise. And that day begins on November 2nd.

Joseph T. Hansen
International President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union
Washington, D.C. - USA



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