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Labor Day — it ain’t what it used to be

Updated: November 22, 2011 11:13AM

Labor Day arrives in 2011 America as a somber mockery. With unemployment stuck at 9.1 percent, zero job growth in August and an economic downturn that has now lasted longer than America’s involvement in World War II, the nation seems divided between desperate jobless folks and those lucky enough to still have jobs but are increasingly worried about keeping them.

As bleak as that 9.1 percent figure is, the truth is worse. If you factor in workers who have swapped professional careers for swabbing out a Denny’s, and those who have given up looking, the true number is over 16 percent — about one in six American workers. I called a handyman to fix my toilet last week — his helper was a freshly minted MBA from DePaul who seemed happy to be learning a trade.

Organized labor once marched today to show off its strength. Now it is a shrunken shred trying to cope with a rapidly changing world, and to illustrate this, we need only glance at the Chicago Teachers Union, whose 21,000 members used to expect pay raises as a sign of autumn alongside leaves turning color and Woolworth’s using signs festooned with apples and chalk to sell pencils and rulers.

This year it didn’t happen, though it might have. Rahm Emanuel offered teachers a 2 percent pay bump in return for adding 90 minutes to their workday, and the union, reading off an old script, rejected it, president Karen Lewis explaining: “We fully support a better, smarter school day for our children, but teachers are now being asked to work 29 percent longer for only a 2 percent pay increase.”

Call me a cynic, but I thought somebody ought to check her math — come on, no grumbling; it’s just algebra, nothing to be afraid of. Maybe a word problem would be easier:

If Billy is a Chicago teacher, earning an average CPS salary of $74,000, and increasing his workday by 29 percent means he teaches 90 minutes longer, how long is Billy’s workday before the increase?

Begin with the simple equation .29x = 90 minutes. Now divide both sides by .29 and we get x = 310.3 minutes or, for those 46 percent of CPS students who never graduate high school, a five hour and 10 minute workday, which I suppose is close enough: Chicago elementary schools go from 9 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., which would indeed give you a five hour and 10 minute workday if you shave off 35 minutes for lunch. (Real teachers, of course, work far more than that, grading papers and buying gold stars and such, and it’s strange to see their union president overlook all that real work simply to make the extra time seem like a bigger deal).

However you slice the numbers, CPS still has the shortest day in the nation — on average, about an hour less than other schools — plus its school year of 170 days is a full 10 days shorter than the national average.

Three factors put the teachers behind a barrel: a) “Our usual raise with no extra work” will make a poor picket line chant; b) a $74,000 average annual salary for a five-hour plus change workday and summers off sounds pretty sweet; c) they’re dealing with Emanuel, whose party’s-over management technique is very different from the follow-orders-and-you-shall-have-your-pie style of Richard M. Daley.

At least teachers still have jobs. For those who don’t, the federal government should be rushing to boost employment, but of course it can’t, because of the fixation on the deficit by the Tea Party-addled Republicans. The deficit is a problem, but a long term problem, and stunts like demanding FEMA aid to victims of the East Coast hurricane be balanced by budget cuts is like refusing to let your kids eat lunch until your Master Card bill is paid off.

Look around. Chicago was created by federal spending. Our first public institution, Fort Dearborn, was paid for by Washington. Federal land grants got the canals going. The Army Corps of Engineers removed the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River, which it also dredged and reversed. And the reason ships could sail to Chicago at all was the Erie Canal, which wasn’t financed by Washington (Jefferson rejected the idea as “a little short of madness”) but by New York state.

“Despite the myth of the self-made frontier town, in almost every way possible the federal government played an important role in making Chicago an attractive place for investors to make their fortunes,” wrote Chicago historian Dominic Pacyga

The government can’t end unemployment alone. But it should be building roads, repairing bridges — our infrastructure screams for improvement and our economy will erode even more without it. Why is financial recovery only thought to trickle down, from the crumbs that supposedly fall off rich people’s plates, and not up, from a collapsing bridge being replaced?

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