It's Labor Day. Must We Talk About Work?

For Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and many other Americans, Labor Day is just another workday.
For Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and many other Americans, Labor Day is just another workday. (By John Locher -- Associated Press)
By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 4, 2006

No backyard barbecues for Labor Secretary Elaine Chao today. No coolers of beer. No settin' at the picnic table, slatherin' butter all over one last batch of summertime corn on the cob.

"She is going to be in the office," says Melinda Thielen, the Cabinet secretary's press officer. "It's a typical Monday for her."

Thielen adds, firmly, about America's top dog for toilers: "She's the secretary of labor, and she's laboring."

After all, Chao may feel the need, in her scheduled CNN, Fox and other TV interviews, to highlight the 128,000 jobs added in July and to dispute some recent headlines. Labor Day is often Target Day for those think-tankers who study our deranged, exhausted work habits and utter bleak pronouncements. Instead of a celebration, like all the other major federal holidays, the first Monday in September is often a 24-hour repository of all that's wrong for workers:

· The Pew Research Center: "Americans believe that workers . . . are worse off now than a generation ago -- toiling longer and harder for less in wages and benefits, for employers who aren't as loyal . . . in jobs that aren't as secure."

· The Economic Policy Institute's "State of Working America 2006/2007": Productivity may have boomed in recent years, but family incomes have stalled.

· Peter D. Hart Research for the AFL-CIO repeats this pessimistic drumbeat: Fifty-five percent of Americans said their incomes were not keeping up with inflation; 38 percent predicted that the economy would worsen in the coming year.

Up in New York, at Cornell University, students will sit in class today, as they do every Labor Day, just it's like any other weekday. Really ? School ON Labor Day ? Yep, answers Dana Ford, a recent graduate, and "it's ironic" because Cornell happens to house one of the nation's few undergrad schools devoted to industrial and labor relations. "Of all places not to have the day off," she says.

Not that this stops her -- a current and very helpful employee of the AFL-CIO -- from passing a message on to AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff, even though he was supposed to be on vacation all last week.

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