WASHINGTON -- According to the Bush administration, this is the best of times for the American worker. According to the labor movement, this is the worst of times. What's up?
Ever since May 1, which used to be the day to honor workers, was dumped (deemed by business to be too akin to the celebration of communism and thus likely to provoke violent rallies), the first Monday in September has been Labor Day. It is a weird holiday.
For most of us, it means the end of summer (and fun), a return to school, more formal work clothes and the dreary approach of winter. For politicians, it means Labor Day speeches and the approach of the November elections. For the few hardy souls left in labor unions, it means renewed commitment to organizing and rooting out the non-union shop. And for retailers, the back-to-school shopping binge is becoming almost as important as Christmas.
For Elaine Chao, invariably identified as the nation's 24th secretary of labor and the first Asian-American woman in the Cabinet, Labor Day means another speech praising her boss, President Bush, and the wonders she says he has worked on the U.S. economy.
Chao says, "The American economy is strong and growing, unemployment is low and more than 5.4 million new jobs were created from August 2003 through the first half of 2006. More Americans are working now than ever."
The department declares in a lengthy report that the labor market is "strong and resilient" as the economy creates jobs, expands output and "rewards work with good compensation."
For John Sweeney, beleaguered president of the AFL-CIO, whose member unions keep dropping out because of disputes over the politicization of the labor movement, Labor Day means another occasion to whip up the (declining) membership to vote for Democrats in November.
This year, he says, unions plan to spend $40 million on electioneering in an effort to take the House and the Senate away from Republicans (captains of industry) and show Bush the back of labor's hand.
Sweeney said, "The president claims to have a faith-based approach to leadership. But that gives people of faith a bad name. His approach is fantasy-based, at best, and so it falls to us in this election season to wage a 'reality-based campaign' that delivers the message: The country needs a change in leadership in order to get a much-needed change in direction."
To read Chao's report is to gag on its unrealistic, glorious assessment of life as an American worker today. To hear Sweeney's speeches is to choke on the unfulfilled promise of the labor movement and his appalling inability to keep it together.
In new polls, including one sponsored by the AFL-CIO, surveyed workers expressed frustration with wages, pessimism over job security and a clear sense that their children will not do as well as they are doing or their parents did.
The most independent of the polls, done by the Pew Research Center, found that of 2,003 adults surveyed in July, most said job stress is up dramatically and they are not confident about their job security. A poll by Peter D. Hart Research, paid for by the AFL-CIO, found that of 803 workers, 55 percent said their salaries are not keeping up with inflation. A survey of 800 workers by Lake Research Partners, which polls for Democrats, found that 51 percent believe the next generation will be worse off and that a family of four needs $40,000 to make ends meet.
The Labor Department argues: "In 2005, real hourly wages were 1.9 percent higher than in 2000, compared to the 1.1 percent rise in wages between 1990 and 1995."
But the Department of Commerce reports that after inflation is accounted for, hourly wages are down 2 percent since 2003. Wages make up the lowest percent of the national domestic product since such statistics first were collected in 1947.
You can prove anything with statistics, no matter the source. What IS real is that the majority of America's non-supervisory workers know their take-home pay is inadequate, that 47 million Americans can't afford health insurance, that without two incomes, most households would be in serious financial jeopardy, that many big companies have no loyalty to workers and that, since 2000, the rich are richer and the middle class is wasting away.
The syrupy rhetoric of the Bush administration about the nation's economy and the welfare of workers and the overheated, partisan rhetoric of the crumbling labor movement do those who toil to live the American dream a huge disservice.
Few politicians are talking truthfully about the state of America's workers and what steps will be necessary to produce a better work force. In an election year, that's appalling. Workers should arise and demand straight talk, for a change.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1987.