August 31, 2014

Editorial: On this Labor Day, take time to consider the type of country we want

On this Labor Day, consider the type of country we want.

On this first Monday in September, this country celebrates Labor Day, a tribute to the American worker. It’s a traditional demarcation for the end of summer, and millions of working Americans get a day off to, presumably, contemplate the state of the worker in the United States.

Sadly, it’s not that great.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that union membership is down from 1983’s figure of 20.1 percent. Now it’s 11.2 percent, though it is 16.4 percent in California.

Unemployment nationwide remains at 6.3 percent, despite the recovery. Given that full employment is considered to be 4 percent, this is a lackluster figure. Pockets of our population are worse off. Blacks suffer about a 12 percent unemployment rate, nearly twice the white rate of 5.7 percent.

Nearly one in four black young people ages 16-25 are out of work. Forty percent of black teenagers 16-19 are unemployed, double that of whites. The Latino unemployment rate is 7.9 percent, above the national rate, and Latino youth unemployment is a similar story to that of black kids.

In California, the unemployment rate is 7.4 percent. That’s too high, but at least jobs lost during the recession have mostly been made up – even if the new jobs don’t pay as well.

The good news is that our state’s job growth rate is on the upswing. But the recovery is uneven. Silicon Valley and the Bay Area are doing well, but the San Joaquin Valley is around 11 or 12 percent. Clearly, we’ve become two different states – the struggling Central Valley and the affluent coast.

Most Americans are working, but the quality of the jobs isn’t great. Many people need two, and more are working outside their chosen fields. People work harder for less money.

Talk of raising the minimum wage has gotten traction. In San Francisco, a ballot measure would increase that city’s minimum wage, currently at $10.74, to $15 by 2018. Other cities are considering similar proposals. With some tweaking, that could help shrink income inequality. The fewer working people who must resort to government assistance to make ends meet, the better.

According to the AFL-CIO, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in America earn 364 times the average wage of rank-and-file workers, way out of line with other industrialized nations. In France, CEOs earn 104 times the average workers’ wage. In England, it’s 84 times. In Japan, it’s 67 times.

Perhaps on this Labor Day, Americans will take a moment to consider these trends and ask themselves what kind of country they want to live in. Is it a gated-community America with a super-wealthy upper class, depending on services provided by others? Or should we live in a country where people who work hard and play by the rules have a fighting chance to keep up, and maybe even get ahead. Isn’t that the American way?

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