Michael A. Cohen

The sorry state of American labor

n this Aug. 21, 2017, photograph, construction workers set up a frame for what will eventually become a jewelry store, in Jackson, Miss. On Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, payroll processor ADP reports how many jobs private employers added in August. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press
Construction workers set up a frame for a jewelry store in Jackson, Miss.

This weekend, millions of Americans will celebrate Labor Day . . . by not laboring. For many it will be a few last trips to the beach or a lakeside house and a well-earned rest before school and work starts up again next week.

Unfortunately, however, the state of American labor is not so rosy.

The simple fact is that Americans work longer hours, retire later, and take fewer vacation days than their counterparts in the rest of the industrialized world. Even the Germans and Japanese — two countries allegedly renowned for their work ethic — don’t work nearly as hard as Americans.


In fact, on average Europeans work around 258 fewer hours per year than Americans.

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And to add insult to injury, America is the only advanced nation that doesn’t guarantee paid vacation, parental leave, or sick leave. So while Swedish workers are entitled to five weeks of paid vacation and French workers can get as much as 30 days off a year, a quarter of US workers don’t get vacation time at all — and almost a third get no paid sick leave. And even for those who do get time off, less than half take all of their vacation days every year and only one in five take all their sick leave.

Why do Americans work so hard and take such little time off? Often they don’t have a choice. Taking sick leave or vacation means not getting paid, and for many low-wage workers that’s simply not an option. Further up the economic ladder, getting promoted and earning a raise often depends on spending those extra hours at the office, coming in on weekends, or working when sick.

One positive aspect for US workers is that income ranges in America are wider than in Europe and Asia, and so there is real incentive to put in more time at the office.

And yet, not really. While Americans are able to make higher wages than their counterparts in Europe and Asia they generally don’t. Between 1950 and 2013, real-wage income in the United States for the bottom 90 percent of workers has grown by 70 percent. This might seem impressive until you compare it to other countries. Over the same period in Italy and Great Britain, wage growth jumped by 150 percent over the same period. In France and Germany, the increase is 250 percent.


For American workers the real decline has come in the past several decades — a period of consistent wage stagnation.

Even though, since the early 1970s, worker productivity in the United States has gone up by 74 percent, hourly compensation for a typical, non-managerial worker has risen by a meager 9 percent. In comparison, since 1979 the top 1 percent of workers have seen their wages grow by a whopping 138 percent.

So for all the extra hours spent away from family and friends, all the family vacations not taken or consumed by answering work e-mails, few America are seeing real tangible benefits — even as higher productivity increase business profits and income growth for the wealthiest Americans.

The reason has a lot to do with politics. Today, there are few institutions and organizations focused on helping workers.

Union density has fallen dramatically to just around 10 percent, which means that the vast majority of Americans have no one advocating on their direct behalf to strengthen labor regulation, collectively bargain for higher wages and better benefits, or push for more generous retirement programs. It’s not an accident that unionized workers make more money and enjoy better benefits than those who are not in a union.


Theoretically, Washington could improve the situation for workers. But over the past few decades Congress has been co-opted by powerful business interests and has time and again put the needs of CEOs and the well-connected ahead of middle-class workers. Republicans are right now talking a big game about tax relief, but in reality the few dollars that Americans get back when Congress has cut taxes mean little when wages don’t grow and the social safety net in America remains so threadbare.

Indeed, at a time when the president is overwhelmingly pro-business and seemingly congenitally opposed to any regulation that benefits labor, the deck is strongly stacked against American workers.

So enjoy your three-day weekend. You’ve more than earned it.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.