Washington — The man at the end of the noisy production line scratches his head. Something is wrong; he doesn't know what. Wages aren't keeping up with inflation. It's another kind of production line and he is falling behind. There's a malaise that he doesn't understand -- and it is having political, economic, and social results. It could decide the 1980 Carter-Reagan election -- if that's the way the political nominations turn out.
Ray Marshall, United States Secretary of Labor, quietly says that American workers are the only wage earners in the industrialized world whose pay hasn't kept up with inflation. He repeats it when asked. Whatever the current US inflation is, he told reporters at breakfast here, it isn't "wage inflation."
Lane Kirkland, the soft-voiced successor of tart-tongued George meany, head of the AFL-CIO, told another group this week that the American labor movement is holding its own in the industrial give-and-take. Most outside critics disagree. They offer the statistic that for the last 30 years the labor movement has been losing ground: In 1947 when the Taft- Hartley Act passed, 35 percent of the nation's nonfarm workers belonged to unions. With younger workers, with more women workers, with illegal aliens, with a shift in industry from factories to service trades, the figure has now shrunk to 23 percent.
Not so, Mr. Kirkland says. In the current issue of the American Federationist he insists:
"Despite the charts, tables, and opinion polls that attempt to prove otherwise, the day [of union decay] is not at hand, nor do I believe it will ever come."
As the hesitant American economy moves to possible recession and then to an almost certain increase in unemployment, emotional strains may grow -- both economic and political.
On the economic side, worker productivity -- the amount of goods produced per manhours worked -- is watched closely. Between 1947 and 1965 it grew by 3.2 percent a year -- the basis of America's higher standard of living. Now it's slipping; since 1973 it has been under 1 percent annually, with actual declines in the first three quarters of 1979.
With fewer goods produced per man-hour, prices of goods have risen; in other words, inflation. There are other causes of inflation, Secretary Marshall says; he puts energy and interest rate increases first. But production is a factor, too. The US worker still outproduces other workers: He has better machinery and plants. But the margin is slipping. Example: US workers outproduced the Japanese by a factor of four in 1960; in 1978, it was only 1 1/2. And, as Secretary Marshall added, wages lagged behind inflation in the US alone among industrial countries.
Labor Secretary Marshall calls present US enforcement of the immigration law against illegal aliens, mostly Mexicans, a "mockery." Trade union chief Kirkland is going down shortly to Mexico City to urge tighter restrictions. Both men want US employers fined if they hire illegal aliens. They see eye-to-eye on this, and the labor secretary also urges the members of trade unions to vote Democratic this autumn because of other pro-labor programs and the administration's employment record. He says the Carter administration found unemployment at 8 percent and brought it down to 6.2 percent by adding "9.5 million more jobs."
The worker on the assembly line ponders this. He is outraged by inflation but wondering about his job if recession comes. His decision could determine the next president.