Another Labor Day has passed with the usual celebrations of the hero of the American middle class — "the working stiff." President Obama attended one in Milwaukee, but he was preaching to a diminished choir in terms of the organized labor movement.
According to the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 12.3 percent of the nation's work force today belong to a labor union. And last year only 7.2 percent of private-sector workers were union members, compared to 37.4 percent in the public sector at the local, state and federal levels.
That means that most American workers remain unorganized and don't fit the old description of "working stiffs" — folks who contributed to the strength and wealth of the nation literally with the sweat of their brows for 40 hours or more a week of heavy lifting. Many more now are office workers, public and private, in a market that has notably shifted from physical labor to white-collar paper shuffling.
The traditional image of powerful Big Labor is belied also by the union movement's current struggle to restore the political clout it enjoyed in the immediate post- World War II period. Then, about one-third of all workers were organized, most in the private sector.
The growth of the unionized public sector over the private is at the core of the argument over the president's efforts to dig the country out of what he calls the "ditch" of economic recession. The bulk of job-creation is occurring in the public sector, with taxpayers underwriting the paychecks. Meanwhile, private hiring lags despite industry profits squeezed from the increased productivity of fewer workers.
Mr. Obama in his Milwaukee speech chided House Minority Leader John Boehner for dismissing public employment "as government jobs that weren't worth saving." Those filling them, President Obama said, "are the people who teach our kids. Who keep our street safe. Who put their lives on the line for our own." But the fact remains, it's in the growth of private-sector jobs where economic recovery needs to be found.
The president addressed that challenge by announcing plans for an infrastructure bank to spur private investment for expansion of the nation's highway and rail networks, engaging unemployed blue-collar workers in rebuilding 150,000 miles of roads and 4,000 miles of railroads in the sort of public works the country has too long delayed.
It's his most pointed response yet to his worst political headache, the national unemployment rate of 9.6 percent, a tick up from the previous month. It has cast a pall on President Obama's optimistic assurances that his own labors for economic recovery are paying off, albeit much too slowly.
Nevertheless, he strove to stir the spirit of those earlier days of struggle and solidarity in the labor movement, to reassure working stiffs that the unions that were so instrumental in creating the middle class still had their home in the Democratic Party.
"It was folks like you, after all, who forged that middle class," he said. "It was working men and women who made the twentieth century the American century. It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today — the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans, those cornerstones of middle-class security that all bear the union label."
Still, for all that history, it is the middle class in both the public and private sectors that is feeling the most pain in the agonizingly slow pace of economic recovery. And according to the polls, the middle class is poised to hold President Obama accountable in the fall congressional elections.
His obvious strategy, along with this new infrastructure rebuilding, is to keep insisting that his earlier federal stimulus package will bear fruit in time, and to warn that the Republicans have no plan at all to undo the economic damage they caused.
To those who criticize him for blaming the previous president, Mr. Obama said: "I'm not bringing this up to relitigate the past; I'm bringing it up because I don't want to relive the past. ... Basically [the Republicans] are betting that between now and November, you'll come down with a case of amnesia." Unfortunately for the Democrats, that bet may be right.