America's Workers: 'Dynamic' or 'Dead-End Street'?

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

( - The U.S. Labor Department released an annual report this week that described the state of the American workforce as "healthy, competitive and growing." But the leaders of the nations' largest union federations responded that "anxiety, anger and a demand for action" are rising among U.S. workers.

"America's workforce is the envy of the world," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao in a statement announcing the release of "America's Dynamic Workforce 2007" on Monday, the Labor Day holiday.

Elaine Chao"Despite some recent market uncertainties, the fundamentals of the American economy are strong, unemployment is near record lows, overall compensation continues to increase, and more than 8.3 million new jobs have been created since August 2003," said Chao.

But the United States does face what she called a "skills gap" because "in a worldwide economy, the competitive strength of America's workforce lies in its productivity, innovation, creativity and knowledge base."

The report lists "some of the current trends that illustrate the state of the economy and importance of education and job training."

* In the first half of 2007, the national unemployment rate ranged between 4.4 percent and 4.6 percent - a full point lower than the average 5.7 percent unemployment rate of the 1990s.

* As of June 2007, more than 8.3 million net new jobs had been created in the United States (since August 2003), giving the nation 46 consecutive months of job growth. Also in June, total jobs reached an all-time high of 138 million, nearly 5.5 million more than the previous high of February 2001.

* Economic growth alone resulted in 2.3 million new jobs during 2006, when employer-paid benefits such as health insurance, paid leave, retirement savings, life insurance, workers' compensation insurance, Social Security contributions, and unemployment insurance amounted to 30 percent of average total compensation.

* Unfilled job openings have increased by 1 million since 2003, and averaged 4.2 million vacancies at the end of May 2007.

* The United States leads the world in manufacturing, accounting for 21 percent of worldwide manufacturing, value-added, followed by Japan (13 percent), China (12 percent) and Germany (8 percent).

* With gross domestic product per hour worked at $48.30 in 2005, American workers are among the most productive in the world.

Anna BurgerHowever, Anna Burger, president of the Change to Win union federation, said in a Labor Day statement that she sees the nation's current economic situation in a different light.

"For the first time, working families - regardless of income or education level - believe that the next generation will NOT be better off," said Burger. "They believe the economy is headed in the wrong direction, and, no matter what you might hear in the media or from government, working families are falling behind."

The "myth we are told about the new American economy - that highly paid, high-tech jobs will offset the loss of the well-paid, union jobs in manufacturing; that all we have to do is re-train and re-tool; that the new economy is on the information superhighway - is pure fiction," she said.

"In reality, unless we do something about it, the new economy is a dead-end street of underpaid, high-turnover, no-benefit jobs that cannot sustain our families or support the 'American Dream' for the working families of the new economy."

John SweeneyJohn Sweeney, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), agreed with Burger.

"America is not working the way it should for working people," he said in his own Labor Day message.

"Housing foreclosures are rising, but wages are not," said Sweeney. "Our bridges and roads and schools are crumbling. So are working families' pensions. Our nation's middle class is shrinking, and the future is in doubt for our children and grandchildren."

Dan Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, told Cybercast News Service on Tuesday that the difference in views on the state of the economy shows that union leaders are "living in an alternative universe where the only measure is the number of people carrying union cards."

"If I were a labor leader, I'd be discontented, too," he said. "Membership in labor unions has been declining for decades. But if you look back 10 years, Americans are better off in virtually every economic measure. Real compensation per hour is up more than 20 percent, and that's not just wages, but benefits as well."

"The net wealth of the typical middle-class American family is up more than 20 percent because of rising stock values and home values," said Griswold. "While manufacturing employment has dropped by over 3 million, we've created more than 11 million more jobs in mostly service sectors that pay on average better than the typical manufacturing job."

"The AFL-CIO and Change to Win leaders are confusing the well-being of organized labor with the well-being of the American worker," Griswold added. "I think the Department of Labor is much closer to the truth on this."

Make media inquiries or request an interview with Randy Hall.

Subscribe to the free daily E-brief.

E-mail a comment or news tip to Randy Hall.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.