- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

Labor Day dawns this year with indications of economic recovery but a relatively high unemployment rate and an organized labor movement embittered toward the president.

The Commerce Department reported last week that the economy emerged from a poor showing earlier this year to grow at a solid 3.1 percent rate in the spring.

Nevertheless, unions are positioning themselves to get rid of President Bush during the 2004 election.

“We do not see any reason to be optimistic about the current economic situation,” John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, said last week.

Unions blame Mr. Bush for an exodus of manufacturing jobs to foreign countries, a 6.2 percent unemployment rate, tax breaks they say favor the wealthy, attempts to weaken overtime pay regulations and interfering with union organizing.

“President Bush has pulled the rug out from under America’s working people and rolled out a red carpet for the wealthy and giant corporations,” Mr. Sweeney said. “There has been more net job loss under Bush than under any president since Herbert Hoover.”

The economy has lost 2.7 million jobs since the recession began in March 2001. The average span of unemployment is more than 19 weeks.

Mr. Bush is expected to address issues of working families and unemployment today in Ohio at an event with the International Union of Operating Engineers.

The White House says the president’s tax cuts help middle-class workers and create incentives for economic growth.

“While the economy has come through a tough period, we are seeing strong signs that the recovery is accelerating,” Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in a Labor Day message issued last week.

Mr. Bush is expected to express his optimism about the economy while labor disputes threaten daily life in pockets around the country.

Verizon Communications is set to resume negotiations this week over job security and wage issues with its unions representing nearly 79,000 telecommunications workers in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. The unions, whose contracts expired Aug. 2, are threatening to disrupt telephone service along the East Coast with a strike unless the dispute is resolved soon.

In Honolulu, Oahu Transit Services was trying to get urban bus drivers back to work after negotiations to end their strike broke off last week. One sticking point was a demand by the drivers for a no-layoffs clause in their contract.

Teachers in Philadelphia, Seattle and Oakland, Calif., are threatening to delay the start of the school year unless they can resolve their labor demands this week.

The 300,000 workers represented by the United Auto Workers are authorizing the union to call a strike when their contract with the Big Three automakers expires Sept. 14 if their health benefit and job security concerns are not resolved by then.

Despite union complaints, the labor force is showing signs of progress.

Claims for unemployment benefits grew by 3,000 in the week ending Aug. 23, the Labor Department reported, but stayed below the 400,000 threshold pointing to a weakening job market.

The conservative Employment Policy Foundation reports that both jobs and the labor force have increased in the last year and a half, although the overall percentage of unemployed is relatively high. The number of jobs grew 1.1 percent and the labor force increased 1 percent.

“Since January 2002, employment has returned to near its pre-recession peak,” the foundation report said.

Meanwhile, the work force continues its transformation toward becoming more highly skilled and more ethnically diverse.

“Net employment growth for college degree holders totaled over 15 million from 1992 to 2002,” the Employment Policy Foundation said. “Employment growth for individuals with no more than a high school diploma was almost zero.”

Although the number of new college graduates is expected to reach 23.3 million by 2012, it will fall short of demand by 7.4 million workers, the foundation said.

Within 20 years, one-third of the work force will consist of minorities as older, predominantly white workers retire.

Those workers may not have the same choices as U.S. jobs move to foreign countries, where labor costs for manufacturing and clerical work are significantly lower.

“We need a president who says that no economy can be strong unless you produce jobs at home,” said Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer.

The AFL-CIO last week announced that it plans to create an organization for nonunion workers who want to join union political efforts.

Federation officials said they hoped the organization, to be called Working America, would enlist more than 1 million people to support them on issues such as raising the minimum wage or stopping privatization of Social Security.

The union movement could use the support as its membership dwindles. Today, 13 percent of the work force is unionized, down steadily from 20 percent in 1983.

The National Association of Manufacturers is calling for “urgent” policy changes to keep jobs in the United States.

Of the 2.7 million U.S. jobs lost in the past three years, many in manufacturing, no more than half could be expected to return, the association said.

“While manufacturing shows increasing signs of recovery, structural impediments of unfair international competition and rising domestic costs cloud the outlook for manufacturing jobs,” said Jerry Jasinowski, the group’s president.

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