In the nation's corporate boardrooms, there must have been much rejoicing (but no flag-waving by workers on the shop floor) at the news that the U.S. has been ranked as the world's most competitive economy, this year and last, in a survey conducted by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum.
There is really no mystery how U.S. corporations achieved the No. 1 ranking. The magic mantra they used so successfully against working people, union and non-union, was "competitive- ness." By threatening American workers that they were "pricing themselves out of the global market," they wrung concessions in wages, fringe benefits and working conditions--and this in a period of economic recovery. They reduced their work force by tens of thousands with enormous savings in labor costs that could be translated into profits for stockholders and higher salaries for corporate executives.
It's worth noting that the U.S. ranked eleventh in 1994 in hourly manufacturing labor costs in a survey of 24 industrialized nations by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Our two major global competitors--Japan and Germany-- both had labor costs that were substantially higher than in the United States. Labor costs in Germany amounted to $27.31 an hour, compared to the U.S. average of $17.10. Japanese labor costs averaged $21.42 an hour, 25 percent more than what American companies were paying their workers.
In the past dozen years, the average work week in Germany dropped almost two hours, from 32.7 to 30.6, while the work week in the U.S. for the same period rose from 38.3 to 39.5 hours.
American workers, once the highest paid in the world, now rank substantially below those in nearly all industrialized countries. They also have the least number of paid holidays and vacation days for an average total of 23 days. Workers in Japan have 25 days off; Britain, 31; France, 35; Sweden, 38; Italy, 40.5, and Germany, 42.
U.S. corporations also benefit because Americans put in more working hours during an average year (1,847) than workers in other industrialized countries except Japan (2,139). In Britain, the average number of working hours per year is 1,635; in Italy, 1,622; in France, 1,619; in Sweden, 1,569, and in Germany, 1,419.
The United States has also the dubious distinction of being No. 1 in the widening income gap between rich and poor. In no country in the world do chief executives of corporations earn 150 timea the income of workers on the shop floor.
Certainly, working Americans deserve some credit for making the U.S. the world's most competitive economy. And what are they getting for their efforts? Wage cuts, loss of jobs, a reduction in health care and other benefits and, if they're lucky enough to hold on to their job, chronic insecurity.