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Another Gold Medal for the United States 

 by Steven Hill

The Olympic flame is passing through the San Francisco Bay Area on its cross-country torch relay to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games. But already the United States is busy wracking up gold medals against our international competitors.

A global survey was released recently that says that world business leaders give the gold medal to the U.S. economy as the "most competitive" in the world among industrialized nations. What business leaders mean when they say "most competitive" is this: low wages, few worker benefits, and deregulation.

"A lot of people are looking at the United States as a new El Dorado for competitiveness," said Stephen Garelli, director of the World Competitiveness Report conducted annually by the International Institute for Management Development.

Ranked just behind the U.S., according to the report, are Singapore and Japan. Other countries in the top ten include Malaysia and Hong Kong. Now there's something for American workers to crow about: our economy is more "competitive" than Malaysia and Singapore.

It used to be that American workers had something else to boast about: being the highest paid work force in the world. But not anymore. In a free-trading world turned upside down, now we get the gold medal for just the opposite.

According to the 1994 Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing labor costs in the U.S. averaged $17.10, while German labor costs were 60% higher ($27.31 per hour) and the Japanese were 25% higher ($21.42). Those poor wretched German and Japanese workers! If only they could make wages like their American counterparts, their country too could win the Gold Medal of Competitiveness.

The hapless Germans have also been so foolish as to reduce their work week by two hours to an average of 30.6 hours per week (with no reduction in pay). But the competitive American workers have seen our average work week increase from 38.3 to 39.5 hours. Americans put in more working hours during an average year (1847) than workers in Britain (1622 hours), France (1619), Sweden (1569) and Germany (1419). American workers also have the least number of paid holidays and vacation, an average of 23 days per year compared to Japan (25 days), Britain (31), France (35), Sweden (38), Italy (40.5) and Germany (42).

In other words, Americans win the gold for working longer hours for less pay. Now that's something to brag about!

And that's not all. The United States also has the Olympic distinction of being Number One in widening the income gap between rich and poor. In no other country do CEOs of corporations make 150 times the income of workers on the shop floor. What's more, though world business leaders ranked the United States first in global competitiveness, American business leaders ranked the U.S. as only seventh. American business leaders apparently don't know how good they've got it, or else they're never satisfied. Perhaps they won't be satisfied until they've wrung more blood, sweat and tears out of the American worker.

So celebrate America! We're Number 1! We've won the gold medal!

Perhaps with a bit of effort, those grossly overpaid and underworked workers in Germany, Sweden, Japan and elsewhere can soon be as "competitive" as us. All they have to do is follow the strictures of the world's business leaders, and they'll make Number One in no time. It will be a wonderful competition, as each nation tries to outdo the other in giving its workers the lowest wages, the least days off, and the least benefits.

These are confusing times. What's all the more odd is that it takes the likes of Pat Buchanan to make sense of these things for American workers. When reports like the World Competitiveness Report are issued, American workers have to ask: is the glass half empty or half full? Is it worth it to win the Gold Medal for this Olympic event?

[Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is co-author of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press, 1999). He lives in San Francisco. For more information, see www.fairvote.org or write to: PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA 94122.]

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