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Labor Day Some workers rightly can feel forgotten in the rush to save failing companies

It doesn't matter if the employee is a former globe-trotting executive or a struggling minimum-wage clerk; the past week brought more evidence that the people who do the actual work of the American economy are far too likely to be tossed aside when the corporations that had benefited from their labors find it convenient to do so.

No business can remain so fiercely loyal to its employees that it allows itself to be dragged into bankruptcy. Defunct businesses, after all, pay no wages to anyone.

But news from both ends of the wage spectrum suggests that the corporate practice of seeking profits and the legal requirements of satisfying creditors have been stressed so much that any loyalty to, or concern for, a company's former or current workers is far too quickly abandoned.

Sometimes, sacrifices must be made. Businesses have to cut back. Benefits may not be so luxurious as they once were.

But the work ethic, in order to work, has to be a two-way street. The increasingly justified belief that worker loyalty to an employer is less and less likely to be rewarded over time -- or even for a week -- threatens to undermine the economy as badly as any of the tax policies or regulatory schemes that are, sometimes rightly, assailed as job-killers.

One case in point, as reported in The Buffalo News last week, is the plight of people who had retired in good standing from their salaried positions at Delphi Corp., only to see their pensions cut and their health care eliminated as the company struggles back from bankruptcy.

The salaried workers found that they weren't getting the same assistance from once and future Delphi parent General Motors that retired hourly workers were, because the United Auto Workers contract required such aid for those it represented while the salaried retirees had only a promise.

It may be too late to help this group of retirees. The effort should be made, but in the future, honest corporations and federal law also should do a better job of setting aside money in good times that will help businesses and their pension plans keep their promises in lean times.

Another example is a report from academics at the City University of New York and elsewhere, which reveals that a staggering number of low-wage workers across the nation are routinely cheated out of their legally mandated minimum hourly wages, their earned overtime and their right to claim compensation for work-related injuries.

The survey found that, on average, 68 percent of low-wage workers had been the victim of some pay violation in the past week, costing them an average of $51 a week. That may not sound like a lot but, when the average weekly wage for this group is only $339, even the smallest take-aways can hurt.

Union representation for such workers often has been lacking. And the textbook free market behavior of workers who feel slighted -- to market their labor elsewhere -- is not a realistic option for unskilled workers, even in better economic times.

This Labor Day, a day set aside for the working man and woman to enjoy the fruits of their labor and for others to appreciate it, should remind us that a successful economy still depends on the backs and the brains of its many workers in order to function. Ignoring their needs, their just rewards, can help short-term profits. But, without proper respect and recompense, workers will increasingly determine that an honest day's work just isn't worth the effort.

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