Labor Day 2010: When did Democrats forget about jobs?

Posted: September 01, 2010

I'VE ALWAYS loved parades.

But one really stands out. I was just a kid, but I'll never forget the big parade in my hometown to celebrate jobs. Sponsored by organized labor, the parade marched down Broadway in Camden to herald the construction of the NS Savannah at the New York Shipbuilding Corp.

Part of the government's "Atoms for Peace" program in the 1950s, the Savannah was the first nuclear-powered cargo and passenger ship. The Savannah meant jobs and prosperity for Camden, then a thriving industrial city that relied on business, labor and government to keep things humming.

Above all, Camden was a blue-collar town, solidly Democrat and pro-labor.

Employment was always the defining "bread and butter" issue for Democrats. And keeping people working and creating new jobs - good jobs - was the essential mission of the party. Indeed, "jobs" was the party's mantra, and Democrats rarely spoke on any issue without mentioning jobs.

As Labor Day approaches once again, I think of that day in Camden so many years ago.

What happened?

What went wrong? When did the Democratic Party stop caring about jobs?

If you doubt that this has happened, just take a look at the figures.

When he came into office, President Obama pledged to create 2.7 million to 3.6 million private-sector jobs. But by some accounts, the nation has lost almost that many jobs since the president made his pledge.

In arguing for its massive stimulus plan, the Obama administration said that if the stimulus was adopted, unemployment could be brought down into the 7 percent range. Instead, the high unemployment rate has barely moved and still stands at 9.5 percent.

And things seem to be headed in the wrong direction. A recent weekly Labor Department report of new jobless claims was up by 12,000 for a total of half a million. That's the first time the new-claims report has reached that level since November. Not a good sign.

Some people think that true job creation won't happen until the weekly jobless claims get down to the low 400,000s. We don't seem to be anywhere near that right now.

Today, nearly 15 million Americans are still out of work. But even that may not be an accurate figure because the real unemployment numbers are probably a good deal higher than the "official" rate.

The official rate doesn't count the underemployed and people who've given up and simply dropped out of the labor market. When those two groups are added, the rate may be as high as 17 percent.

It would seem clear now that the Democrats' $86.2 billion stimulus package simply has not worked.

But nobody on the left seems to want to talk about it - not the liberal establishment, not the Democratic leadership and certainly not the labor movement.

Obama argues that the economy was in a ditch, but "we've gotten it out of the ditch and want to put it in drive." But it still doesn't seem to be moving.

There was a time when labor leaders were close to the people. There was a time when they actually worked alongside the people that they represented.

But now, labor leaders seem more likely to be serving in Congress or on the Delaware River Port Authority board or in the Pennsylvania or New Jersey state legislature. And some of them are serving in two or three posts simultaneously while others are already reaping the benefits of one or more healthy pensions.

MANY modern-day union leaders live like potentates. For example, the president of New Jersey's powerful teachers union makes more than a quarter-million dollars a year. And that doesn't even count her numerous perks.

And all of this has been happening as total union membership has steadily dwindled. When the Savannah was built in Camden, labor unions represented a third of all workers. By 1983 the number had fallen to 20 percent. And by 2008 it was down to 12 percent. What's more, the average age of union members seems to be getting older. The largest unionized age group is workers aged 55 to 64.

Why can't the Democrats who lead this country turn any of these numbers around? What are union leaders really doing with their power and influence? What happened to one of the central promises of traditional liberalism - jobs? Questions worth pondering this Labor Day.

Daniel A. Cirucci is a lecturer in corporate communications at Penn State Abington. He blogs at dancirucci.com.

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