- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 3, 2006

This Labor Day, with the wages of many American workers stagnant and an election two months away, the timing is particularly good for end-of-days rhetoric. “Our nation is at a tipping point. People are working harder and making less,” the AFL-CIO’s Labor Day message begins, noting health-care woes and retirement worries. “A good middle-class life is increasingly out of reach. Whoever thought that in America our children might not be better off than their parents?”

Let’s turn that question on its head: How many more people in America think that their jobs are dead-end ones, or that their prospects are poor or jeopardized, than did in their parents’ generation? We’re asking about people’s perceptions of their own personal situations — not their view of their generation’s prospects and not their opinion of the state of the nation generally. How many Americans are more pessimistic today than the equivalent workers were a few years or decades ago?

These are interesting questions, and the answers aren’t what the AFL-CIO would suggest. Years of survey data show that, on balance, it’s not the American worker who thinks that things are getting worse, at least not when it comes to what workers know best — themselves. That holds generally true even when times are tough. If they do think things are getting worse, it should show up in job satisfaction surveys. It doesn’t.

Americans are actually remarkably constant in their optimism about their own economic prospects, their own jobs and their own futures, irrespective of gloomy macro trends. It can be a different, cheerless story when you ask for their opinion on the economy generally — and it’s worth a caveat that the numbers by definition don’t include the unemployed. But if you just take a moment to ask American workers about themselves, the answers are almost always rosy.

Each year the American Enterprise Institute’s public-opinion expert, Karlyn Bowman, publishes “The State of the American Worker: Attitudes about Work,” which compiles 50 years of polls on job satisfaction, layoff worries and a variety of questions on income, benefits, stress and vacation. Time and again, Mrs. Bowman finds, the answers are the same or in some cases better than in the past.

How worried are people about losing their jobs? Are they any more worried than in the past? They’re actually slightly less worried this year than in the late-1990s, height of the Clinton-era economic boom. Since 1975, the Gallup Organization has asked whether people think they are likely to be laid off in the next twelve months. In April 1975, 5 percent said “very likely” and 8 percent said “fairly likely,” while 85 said “not too likely” or “not at all likely.” In December 1998 it was 6, 7 and 87 percent. The April 2006 numbers: 3 percent “very likely,” 7 percent “fairly likely,” and 89 percent the two “unlikely” options. It’s interesting to note that these numbers change only slightly during recessions; they typically do not move more than a few percentage points year-on-year. People’s opinions on this question just don’t seem to change very much.

How about job satisfaction? Presumably if people are working harder and getting less, they will be less satisfied. They aren’t. In 1989, Gallup found that 45 percent of people were “completely satisfied” with their job security and 42 percent were “somewhat satisfied.” Last year it was 52 and 31 percent. If you limit respondents to two possible answers, “satisfied” or “dissatisfied,” as Gallup did for over fifty years, from 1949-2001, the answers also remain remarkably constant. In 1949, 67 percent were satisfied. By May 2001, 70 percent were. In another survey from 1972-1986, 49 percent were “very satisfied” and 37 percent “moderately satisfied” in the first year; 44 and 43 percent 20 years later; and 50 and 36 percent in 2004.

Now, if people are cheery about their job prospects, then certainly they should be gloomier about their benefits, right? That, after all, is one of the pillars of the AFL-CIO’s doomsaying, and one of the most worrisome current trends. But even here, interestingly, there has only a slight downward movement and not much change overall. In 1973, 32 percent were “completely satisfied” with their benefits, 34 percent “somewhat satisfied” and 29 percent “somewhat” or “completely dissatisfied.” Today it is 34 and 30 percent versus 11 and 17 percent.

So where does the doom and gloom come from? Well, for starters, the AFL-CIO, whose members have tended to suffer significant job losses in recent years, and whose political champions in the Democratic Party stand to gain from it. It also originates with writers like Anya Kamenetz, whose “Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to be Young” pulls numbers selectively to give the impression that the generation of current twentysomethings is, well, just too burdened to keep quiet any longer. Please.

Let’s not insult the American worker. Whoever thought that in America our children might not be better off than their parents? Not the American worker. He or she is about as happy as 50 years ago. That’s true whatever the interest groups with interests in being gloomy would have you believe.

Labor Day is an opportune time to reflect upon the decidedly un-gloomy outlook of the American worker; it just so happens that Labor Day is predicated on optimism about the American way of democratic capitalism, which has always rejected the type of doomsaying we’re seeing today.

In late 19th-century America, Labor Day originated as a celebration of the working man and as an explicit rejection of the then-purveyors of gloom and doom, the movement for international socialism. On the first Labor Day, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, the Knights of Labor organized a march and picnic in New York City to honor working people and their accomplishments. They didn’t choose May Day, however, the favored holiday of socialists and anarchists, the way many other industrialized countries did. Today that can be viewed as a symbolic vote of confidence in own unique form of capitalism.

The idea for Labor Day caught on quickly. Oregon made it a holiday in 1887 and Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York quickly followed. Labor Day went national in 1894 by an act of Congress.

Labor Day was a symbolic victory for both labor and capitalists because it honored the working man while also helping contain the radical ideology that threatened to undo the country’s economic progress. It’s true that industrialists and their supporters initially opposed Labor Day, but management compromised in order to resist the efforts of socialists, anarcho-syndicalists and others to get the United States to celebrate May Day. An American May Day would have lent symbolic aid to people who wanted socialism to take root in the United States.

Labor joined with management to oppose efforts by the International Workingmen’s Association and other radical groups that wanted a May celebration as a symbolically important part of their campaign for Marxism and radicalism in America. The critical step came from President Grover Cleveland, who ended up supporting a September Labor Day in part to squelch possible re-enactments of Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket riots, which happened in May.

By cementing a September Labor Day, Cleveland ensured that the United States would commemorate labor in a pro-capitalist way. It ended up mostly alone in that effort: In the century after, hardly any industrialized democracies followed the American lead on Labor Day. Only Canada celebrates its Labor Day in September and traces the holiday’s roots to the same Knights of Labor origins. Europeans celebrate on May 1, while Australia varies by territory and New Zealand celebrates in October.

Over the years, some have failed to see — perhaps strained themselves not to see — the uniquely American character of our Labor Day. “Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country,” Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor and a towering figure in organized labor’s early days, once said. “All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day … is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”

Gompers was wrong in one important respect: Labor Day’s unique American origins are uniquely pro-capitalist. Our Labor Day was predicated upon a rejection of the gloomy prognosticators. It is a statement of optimism about the American form of capitalism.

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