As American workers mark Labor Day this year, their government knows less about the shape of the American labor force than it has in recent years.
Budget cuts have forced the Labor Department to eliminate, scale back or reduce the accuracy of 19 reports that it used to prepare on employment, wages, strikes and union activities.
Bureau of Labor Statistics officials say that in trimming $14.8 million and 179 jobs, they tried to eliminate the reports that were used by the fewest number of people. But, said BLS Commissioner Janet L. Norwood, "We have tried, very carefully, to preserve those programs that are very critical to the nation's economic health and economy."
William G. Barron, associate commissioner of the BLS for administration, said, "These reports, individually, were a relatively specialized set of products." But "to the extent that industry managers and planners and economists relied on these data, their analytic efforts will be hampered."
Eight reports have been scrapped entirely.
* A sampling of rural households that allowed the agency to produce a consumer price index for the whole nation. The agency's basic Consumer Price Index will continue to reflect only urban areas, as it always has.
* Monthly data on the number of people fired, laid off or hired in the manufacturing industry. The data had been part of the Commerce Department's monthly survey of leading economic indicators, which provides information on the business cycle.
* A report on people who hold more than one job, detailing their characteristics, hours worked and what kinds of jobs they held.
* A directory of unions, their membership and leaders. BLS officials decided that the unions should do it themselves.
* Reports that analyzed union contracts for firms with more than 1,000 employes. But the BLS is still required to collect information about the agreements and keep it on file.
* A survey of the kinds and numbers of workers needed to build schools, hospitals and housing across the nation.
* Hypothetical budgets for a retired couple and an urban family of four, at three income levels. "We were working to improve this report, to make it more relevant to more people, when it was terminated," Barron said.
* A special computation of the Consumer Price Index for Fairbanks, Alaska. The report, which Congress ordered the bureau to do several years ago, duplicated other information that the bureau produced.
The bureau has also scaled back other reports and statistics or plans it had to improve them.
* The number of households surveyed in the agency's regular report on unemployment has been trimmed from 72,000 to 60,000. That decision, a BLS official said, will make state unemployment figures less accurate.
* Efforts to determine unemployment statistics for localities also have been cut back.
* The bureau has postponed plans to increase the categories of industries surveyed for the Producer Price Index from 20 percent to 100 percent. The index measures price changes before a product hits the retail level; Barron said that the agency might now survey coal mining, but not silver mining, the steel industry, but not copper smelters.
"The most important shift in the program involves cutting out all work on including the service industries," Barron said. More than half of the nation's work force is employed in the service industries, he said, but information on that sector is declining.
* About 50 job categories listed in the Occupational Outlook Handbook have been eliminated, or about one-sixth of the book. The career guide is the most popular one put out by the government and is used by counselors in more than 90 percent of the country's secondary schools to help students learn about different kinds of jobs. The categories that were cut were those requiring the least amount of education.
* Price indexes for exports and imports will now reflect only 70 percent of all industries, down from 80 percent.
* The number of industries surveyed for wage reports has been cut by about 30 percent. Surveys on wage rates for constructing mobile homes and wooden buildings, in hotels and motels, auto dealer repair shops and in electrical machinery manufacturing have been dropped, while a survey on jobs in the metal mining industry was postponed.
* BLS used to keep track of all work stoppages involving at least one shift of six or more workers. Now the agency will keep track only of those involving more than 1,000 workers. That group generally represents 60 percent of the workers, but only 5 to 10 percent of the strikes.
George L. Stelluto, assistant BLS commissioner for wages and industrial relations, said the strike report program was "recognized as one of the leading federal economic indicators . . . a multipurpose statistic that was used to assess the industrial peace or lack of industrial peace in the economy."
Norwood has fought with both the administration and Congress over the cuts, but, she said, in "a period when the entire government is being cut back . . . I believe that we need to look at statistical programs in the same way that we look at all other programs for some budget cuts."
But observers in both industry and labor are concerned. The Business Research Advisory Council passed a resolution in August, saying, "The basic statistical operation of the bureau is threatened by an over-strenuous reduction of its resources."
Warren H. Bacon, an Inland Steel Co. official who chairs the council, said the council is worried that budget cuts will "curtail the bureau's resources to the point that its ability to provide timely and reliable data is impaired."
Markley Roberts, a research economist for the AFL-CIO and chairman of the Labor Research Advisory Council, said, "The people who do negotiating on labor-management agreements and the business people are interested in different sets of statistics, but both sides have been cut."
Roberts said that BLS officials "wrongly feel that their first duty is to the president's Council of Economic Advisers, to provide general economic data rather than specific data that can be used to foster a better working environment."
But Norwood strongly disputes that view. "I think that everybody would agree that our basic responsibility is to make sure the Consumer Price Index and the Producer Price Index and the employment and unemployment data reports are retained and kept of decent quality."