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U.S. workers: Best should be doing better

Today, we honor the men and women of America who work for a living -- and who, by all measures, are the best in the world at what they do.
The Oregonian
Monday, September 06, 2004

If work were an Olympic event, America's workers would be the gold-medal winners. We work longer hours than our counterparts in developed countries. We turn out more goods per hour than any other workers in the world.

But we're not earning points in this economy. We've lost more jobs over the last three and a half years than at any time since Herbert Hoover took us into the Great Depression. Our paychecks, adjusted for inflation, are smaller now than they were when the recession ended in November 2001. And we have 3.8 million fewer jobs that provide health insurance than we had three years ago.

We're doing everything we've been asked to do. We jump into retraining programs when our factories close. We're taking more trade school courses. We're paying a lot more for a college education. But we're chasing good jobs that are disappearing faster than we can be trained for them.

If there's one message we ought to deliver this Labor Day, it's this: We're working harder, smarter and longer than ever before. We should be doing better.

Or should we?

We tend to believe what we're told by those who control our jobs. CEOs tell us that we must learn to compete in a sink-or-swim world, while politicians deliver pep talks about getting ahead in that world by becoming better swimmers. As a result, we're more willing to work for less in hard times, but we no longer see a clear path to better times.

Here's what the cheerleaders of the global economy should remember: We still have an economy subject to our nation's laws; it's the largest in the world, and we, its work force, are second to none. We're already the best swimmers. What we need now are better standards for how we treat workers in our national economy and better rules for global competition.

We've lost jobs because our government negotiates trade agreements that encourage companies to pay Chinese wages for products they sell at U.S. prices and then gives tax breaks to those same companies when they keep their profits overseas.

We've lost income because Congress blocked a long-overdue increase in the minimum wage and stymied legislation to restore the rights of workers to form unions without reprisals by their employers.

We continue to lose health benefits because corporations such as Wal-Mart reap record profits while forcing half their workers to go without health insurance.

It shouldn't take the Olympics to remind us that American workers are the best in the world. That's been true for years. But we should recognize that if we're working harder and getting less for our efforts, something is wrong with the priorities that our business and political leaders have set for our country.

Education and training are critical to our success but not if the priority of our employers is to pay less for what we contribute to their success -- and not when our government aids and abets that kind of short-sighted, selfish agenda.

If we can get corporate America to stop scouring the globe for cheaper labor, if we can get our government to negotiate smart trade agreements that benefit our local economies and if we can convince our lawmakers to pass stronger laws to protect working families, we can begin to restore the equity we need to make our economy work for both workers and businesses.

Then we'll have something to celebrate on Labor Day.

Tim Nesbitt is president of the Oregon AFL-CIO.