Economic downturn hits home on holiday


Published: Monday, September 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 31, 2003 at 11:02 p.m.

The nation's work force kicks back today, taking a break to contemplate and celebrate its labors.

Facts

Jobless rate

  • Alachua County's unemployment rate is 2.5 percent, fourth lowest in Florida, where the state average is 5.3 percent.

  • Some of the speeches at union halls and picnics will recount the strides the labor movement has made. Others will acknowledge those who aren't celebrating today, the 6.2 percent of the nation's workers who don't have a job to return to on Tuesday.

    "We do not see a reason to be optimistic about the current economic situation," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told The Associated Press on Thursday. "White-collar as well as blue-collar employees are losing jobs, and many of these jobs aren't coming back."

    Locally, labor leaders can look at an employment picture that appears to be far more benign. Alachua County's unemployment rate is 2.5 percent, fourth-lowest in Florida, where the state rate is 5.3 percent.

    But appearances can be deceiving, said Tom Summers, president of the North Central Florida Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, cq which represents about 20,000 union members in 12 counties.

    "We have a real low unemployment rate compared to the state, but when you look at the amount of poverty in our area, it says people are working but not making enough to make ends meet," he said. "That tells you that a whole lot of people are at risk."

    College graduates are among those feeling the impact of the economy, said Larry Kenny, professor of economics at the University of Florida.

    "I think this downturn has had quite an adverse effect on employment prospects for students trying to get a job after they graduate," he said. "Some are going back and entering master's programs.

    "And students who are getting 'terminal' degrees - Ph.D.s and MBAs - don't have a lot of options," said Kenny, who teaches a class in labor economics and studies labor markets. "Some are staying and continuing research or doing some teaching. And there are others who go and get a job that is not well-suited to their skills."

    Summers said the labor movement has come a long way and those accomplishments - including the 40-hour week, overtime pay and health benefits - will be applauded today.

    "I have to look at it historically," he said. "This is the movement that created the middle-class, better wages, health insurance, Social Security, unemployment compensation. It's been a long-fought struggle to get all those provisions and we can't let them slip away."

    But in the last year or two, Summers said, "We've seen a lot of protections for workers and worker rights eroded." After the Labor Day recess, he said, Congress is expected to address the Bush administration's proposal to expand exemptions for mandatory payment of overtime.

    "Right now a lot of managers are exempt from overtime beyond 40 hours," he said. "But a stroke of the pen would allow the (U.S. Department of Labor) to expand the classifications of workers that will be exempt from overtime."

    He said the categories would be expanded to include such jobs as white-collar technicians, who would be paid a base salary instead of overtime.

    Kenny said the union membership peaked in the 1950s and for a variety of reasons has been declining since. A smaller fraction of the work force today is in manufacturing, he said, because of competition from foreign products.

    "Back in the '50s, companies could raise wages with fewer jobs lost than is the case now," Kenny said. "Also now, with right-to-work laws, there are more states - such as Florida - where it's harder for unions to be effective because workers are not obligated to join a union."

    But while union membership is declining in manufacturing and other areas, he said, "with deregulation, unions continue to be an important and growing force in the government sector."

    Kenny said the relationship between unions and management today is different from what it was in unionism's heyday, when strikes and work slowdowns were more common negotiating tools than they are now.

    "I think there is more of an effort to try and find common solutions to deal with a common enemy, such as work lost to some plant abroad," he said. "There is more of a communication effort today."

    Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 374-5042 or arndorb@gvillesun.com.

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