Are American Workers Mad As Hell?

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American workers say they’re doing pretty well these days — no thanks to their employers.

Just in time for Labor Day, the AFL-CIO has released a new report on job satisfaction and the results paint a pretty grim picture for employers. According to "Workers’ Rights in America: What Workers Think About Their Jobs and Employers," while 54 percent of U.S. workers rate their own financial situation as "good" or "excellent," 68 percent of those surveyed believe workers’ rights need "much more" or "somewhat more" protection. Asked to rate their own work experiences, employees handed out more bad news for company brass: Two-thirds of workers have "just some" or "not much" trust that employers will treat them fairly. And 47 percent of African-American workers say they’ve been subjected to racial discrimination.

The survey, which included 1,792 adults, took place over July 5-9 — well into the current economic downturn (or correction, depending upon which newscast you favor). And that brings us to one of the many reasons to take the results with a grain of salt: Does the national economic forecast affect worker satisfaction? Probably. Skeptics will also point out that the country’s largest and most powerful union organizer has a vested interest in eliciting dissatisfied responses from employees.

Case in point: Late in the survey, it’s revealed that the majority of workers (68 percent) and especially blacks, Latinos and women (ranging between 85 and 77 percent) favor the right to join a union without interference from employers. (Only 20 percent of workers surveyed live in union households themselves).

David Larson, professor and senior fellow at the Dispute Resolution Institute at Hamline University School of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota, says some skepticism is always handy when analyzing this kind of potentially loaded data. Earlier this month, the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative organization, also published a report on employee attitudes, one that looks very different from the AFL-CIO release. "The AEI report shows that workers continue to be very satisfied with their work and their employers," says Larson. "And the AFL-CIO study says exactly the opposite. So you have to wonder who these organizations are talking to, and whether they’re asking leading questions."

On the other hand, says Larson, the AFL-CIO report does point to certain dire trends that should not (and cannot) be dismissed out of hand. First, the study indicates there’s a 10 percent increase in perception among employees that employers have too much power. "People are really just learning how vulnerable workers are under current employment law," Larson says. "Interestingly for the AFL-CIO, one of the reasons union membership has declined so dramatically is that the union representatives were unable to communicate that vulnerability, and workers saw no reason to invest in unions."

Another point worth noting, according to Larson, is the fact that half of black workers surveyed say they’ve experienced workplace discrimination. "You can believe whatever you want about frivolous complaints," he says, "but you can’t look at a figure like this without realizing there’s a very serious problem out there." Statistics are malleable, admits Larson, but even if you tweak every response in every way you can, he says, "you’re still up around 30 percent of black respondents with discrimination concerns. And that’s very, very far from acceptable."