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What’s Holding America Back?
Labor Gets no Love from Bush

by Michelle Chen
September 22, 2004

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Recently, America’s workers went back to work after a weekend of celebrating their contribution to society. Upon returning to their cubicles, counters, stalls and stations, these millions might have felt a bit strange, like things have changed. No wonder. Thanks to subtle tweaks in national labor laws—part of Bush’s plan for economic growth—Americans now indeed find their jobs growing: that is, working more hours and getting nothing in return.

For the rest of the workforce who don’t have jobs, it just got a little tougher to find one, and the weeks of scanning job boards and biting nails just got a little more frustrating.

But whatever your work situation, rest assured that your president has taken great pains to rearrange your future, because, as he boasted in his convention speech, “I believe in the energy and innovative spirit of America's workers, entrepreneurs, farmers, and ranchers … our economy is growing again, and creating jobs, and nothing will hold us back.”

So if you felt a little funny when you got back to work after Labor Day—well, that’s the feeling of a new era of prosperity.

The 8 million jobless, of course, are probably having trouble envisioning prosperity on the unemployment line. And all that “spirit” likely eludes 534,000 “discouraged” workers nationwide, who have decided that things just can’t get any better and stopped even trying to look for work. The official unemployment rate, already hovering at an alarming 5.4%, jumps to 5.8% when you factor in workforce dropouts—a rate that has grown by nearly 40% since Bush took office.

“Discouraged” is an interesting choice of phrasing. What would those half a million Americans say in response to Bush’s faith in workers’ “energy and innovative spirit”? If nothing will hold us back, why are the discouraged—whose ranks grew by 31,000 this past year—and countless others, having so much trouble getting inspired by Bush’s economy?

If the answer is a simple lack of motivation, that doesn’t bode very well for America’s youth, as 18,000 of this year’s newly discouraged are between the ages of 16 and 24. Maybe alumni of our failing, resource-starved public schools lack the skills to compete in the global marketplace; the unemployment rate is fifty percent higher for workers without a high school diploma. Bush’s plans to slash employment and training programs by $200 million next year won’t do much! to brighten the prospects of low-skill laborers, either.

Maybe people are miffed that the 40-hour grind these days just isn’t what it used to be. By reclassifying workers as overtime-exempt “professionals,” about 6 million people will lose overtime pay—part of a plan to make employees cost their bosses less, sugar-coated by Bush as a reform of “outdated” labor laws. For the single mom working a double shift at Walmart, this is one promotion with no perks.

If you’re Black or Hispanic, you might have trouble psyching yourself up about a workforce that pays you a median income of about 22% and 45% less, respectively, than that of a white male. Then there are those 2.1 million workers being “held back” by the fact that they still can’t make above minimum wage. And those who should be the nation’s most secure workers, union members, must be less than thrilled to have their collective power gutted by Bush’s opposition to workplace organizing rights.

In a way, the dismal outlook for working Americans is the status quo Bush has proudly maintained throughout his term. According to the Census Bureau, working people’s piece of the proverbial pie has dwindled to crumbs in recent years, with the top fifth of income-earners wolfing down half the nation’s wealth, leaving the lowest fifth scrounging for 3.5%.

Yet every reason for workers to be discouraged about our economy somehow fuels the Bush Administration’s perverse optimism. Bush would like to call last month’s pathetic 0.1% decrease in unemployment “recovery.” But since last year, sluggish job growth has consistently fallen short of his claims; his projection of 1.8 million new jobs in 2003 was about 90% wide.

One area where the president can brag about boosting employment is in another hemisphere, in developing nations like China, where millions work for virtually nothing, and companies are free of all those pesky labor regulations inflating the cost of labor in the US. It’s easy to see why 2.9 million US jobs have disappeared since Bush took office. As if corporations needed more incentive to outsource jobs, Bush’s proposed 2005 budget dishes out added tax bonuses for multinationals that move jobs overseas. In Bushland, this is known as “taking the side of working families.”

But such delusions of grandeur go hand in hand with rise of empire; the same knack for self-deception emboldens Bush to call raining bullets and exploding sewage pipes in Najaf “liberation.” A glaring irony of the Administration’s labor policies is that troops who did the dirty work in Iraq will return to find themselves at the receiving end of this twisted version of economic revitalization. Veterans whose employers decide that military service is equal to four years of “specialized” training get upgraded to “professional” status and lose their overtime pay as well—a great way to welcome back survivors of the political and economic catastrophe Bush calls the rebuilding of Iraq.

There’s a warped logic to the Bush camp’s cheeriness. If the election were held today, after all, Bush would most likely win, and that’s reason enough for him to be optimistic. Maybe this proves the majority of Americans share Bush’s reality-defying hope. But something tells me that Bush’s mind-boggling de facto support has more in common with the thousands of Americans who have been labeled “discouraged” and subsequently wiped off the unemployment charts. After four years of watching their government erode the economy and undermine civil rights, watching the American Dream get distorted into a foil for imperialism, watching jobs get shipped overseas and caskets shipped home—maybe citizens are resigning themselves to the idea that this is simply what their country has become. Americans must encourage themselves to challenge the current regime—not just through the electoral process, but through direct action to prevent the next set of leaders, whoever they are, from continuing the cycle of deceit and manipulation. Or else we can only watch as we begin another four years of discouragement. There will be nothing holding them back.

Michelle Chen is a freelance writer who recently returned from China, where she spent a year on a Fulbright research fellowship. Her writing has appeared in the South China Morning Post, Clamor, ZNet,, Asia Times and other publications.