Labor Day Reader 2011: Stormy weather for workers

Photo by David Yamada

Folks, by just about any measure, this is a brutal Labor Day. Millions of workers are without jobs, too many of the employed struggle with unpleasant or even abusive work situations, and the economy is in dismal shape. Here’s a snapshot of commentary on the state of American labor 2011:

To work, we need jobs

Labor Day newspaper features and editorials are all about jobs. For example, here’s the lede from Katherine Yung’s two-part series on jobs and the economy in the Detroit Free Press (link here):

Almost 2 1/2 years after losing his job as an inventory technician, all Mark Baerlin has to show for his lengthy job search are notebooks filled with information about the 343 jobs for which he applied.

So far this year, the Dearborn resident has gotten five interviews. None of them panned out.

In early July, Baerlin exhausted all 99 weeks of his unemployment benefits. He has been saving every penny he can, canceling doctor appointments and using as little water, lighting, air-conditioning and gasoline as possible. If the 51-year-old doesn’t find a job soon, he could lose his house.

Unhappy workers

America’s workers are very dissatisfied with their jobs and their employers. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer summarize important polling results in a New York Times op-ed piece (link here):

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which has been polling over 1,000 adults every day since January 2008, shows that Americans now feel worse about their jobs — and work environments — than ever before. People of all ages, and across income levels, are unhappy with their supervisors, apathetic about their organizations and detached from what they do.

Future of the Middle Class

In a thought-provoking analysis for The Atlantic, Don Peck asks whether America’s middle class can be saved (link here):

Arguably, the most important economic trend in the United States over the past couple of generations has been the ever more distinct sorting of Americans into winners and losers, and the slow hollowing-out of the middle class. Median incomes declined outright from 1999 to 2009.


The post-war decades of the 20th century were unusually hospitable to the American middle class—the result of strong growth, rapid gains in education, progressive tax policy, limited free agency at work, a limited pool of competing workers overseas, and other supportive factors. Such serendipity is anomalous in American history, and unlikely to be repeated.

Yet if that period was unusually kind to the middle class, the one we are now in the midst of appears unusually cruel. The strongest forces of our time are naturally divisive; absent a wide-ranging effort to constrain them, economic and cultural polarization will almost surely continue.

Goodbye pensions, goodbye retirement?

Labor lawyer and journalist Steve Early, writing for The Progressive, warns of the demise of pensions (link here):

This Labor Day, workers need to beware: Management may be making it harder to retire.

That’s because more employers, in both the private and public sector, have phased out traditional pensions and replaced them with individual retirement accounts.

…The dismal performance of the stock market over the last three years has wrecked a lot of people’s 401(k) plans. But even before the collapse of Lehman Brothers — and the stock market’s current roller coaster ride — the shortcomings of 401(k) coverage were quite apparent.

On Wisconsin

The unprecedented attack on public workers and their unions in Wisconsin has become a matter of national significance. Dave Poklinkoski, writing for Labor Notes, reflects on the meaning of Wisconsin and lessons that can be drawn from it (link here):

The struggle in Wisconsin was the awakening that labor movement activists had hoped for—disproving the modern notion that those who work will not stand up for themselves. Several hundred thousand people rallied in communities across the state.

…But the recall elections of six Republican senators turned out to be an education opportunity lost, in a sea of negative attack ads.

And in our own corner of the world….

…we’re renewing our commitment to stopping workplace bullying:

For those who would like to become active in state campaigns to enact the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, please go here. And for an extensive Labor Day interview with two pioneers of the workplace anti-bullying movement, Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, conducted by Bob Morris, go here.

2 responses

  1. Hi David! Love your blog. I’m sure you have noticed this but I have found that many employers will only hire part time help so they don’t have to offer benefits. My son can only get 32 hours at work right now. My job doesn’t allow any overtime. I have applied to work at our Wal-Mart but they won’t allow any full time. I’m about to get rid of my medical and dental insurance because I need the money I’m paying into it every month… Gotta love our economy, huh? Have a good day!

    • Anita, yes, this is definitely another aspect of what we’re talking about here. I’m sorry to hear you & your family are caught in that crunch.

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