This is not your father’s Labor Day, or your grandfather’s.
That Labor Day of yesteryear might have been right after World War II, when the United States economy was booming. While the rest of the world was rebuilding, the U.S. was providing the materials and expertise needed around the globe. Still, there weren’t enough jobs to go around, so the GI Bill encouraged hundreds of thousands of veterans to go to college. And President Dwight Eisenhower launched the interstate highway system, linking the two coasts with highways, just as railroads had done a century earlier.
America was not only building things, it was building a middle class and a standard of living that became the envy of the world.
Just a generation later, the state of labor in America was in transition. The nation had gone from exporting all those things its workers made to exporting jobs by buying hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of imported products. Lower-paid workers in other countries were happy to make things in exchange for an American dollar, even as the value of that dollar shrank.
Over the past 120 years since Congress established the first Monday of September as a national holiday honoring American workers, there have been booms and busts — good times and bad for American workers and the companies that employed them.
On this Labor Day, the nation continues a slow — very slow — recovery from what is arguably the third worst economic downturn since Labor Day was created.
In 1894, the nation was crippled by the panic of 1893, which saw 500 banks close, 15,000 businesses go out of business and unemployment levels of 10 percent or more for five years.
The 1930s was a lost economic decade for the United States and much of the world. The Great Depression spanned 12 years, during which U.S. economic output was cut by nearly half, and unemployment reached highs of 25 percent.
Today, in much of the Mahoning Valley, things are improving, but we have a long way to go. The unemployment rate for July was 6.8 percent, while the state average was 6 percent. At the extremes were Monroe County, with 12.2 percent, and Mercer County with 3.3 percent. Per-capita and per-household income figures for the Valley are about 20 percent below the national average. But the projected job growth for the area over the next 20 years is 35 percent, only fractionally below the projected national average.
Improving the present
There are things that can be done to improve that. While the boom from shale and oil development is not as strong as anticipated a few years ago, at least in some sections of the Valley, the industry still has enormous potential. There is a resurgence in the manufacturing sector in the Valley, due in part to the production of oil-country steel products. But that doesn’t mean we’ll be returning to that day when sons could graduate from high school one day and follow their fathers down to a job in the mill the next.
Even heavy manufacturing in the computer age requires brains as much as brawn. And shale jobs involve training as well, with welders in especially high demand. And during the last year we have seen disturbing reports about the high percentage of potential employees in industrial jobs who are rejected because they can’t pass the required drug test. People should not and cannot expect to have jobs handed to them on a silver platter.
Downtown Youngstown is becoming a mecca for high-tech jobs, as the Youngstown Business Incubator continues to attract and grow businesses and additive manufacturing only begins to reach its potential. Anyone who attended the America Makes open house last month at the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute couldn’t help but be amazed at what is being done today and what can potentially be done tomorrow.
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
But to build on today’s success will require a commitment to prepare for the future.
A nation that recognized the need to invest in infrastructure and that valued education has lost some of its focus over several decades of Labor Days. State support for education at all levels has been declining, especially for higher education. The ability of middle-class Ohioans to send their children to state universities has declined as tuitions have risen.
If a generation from now, we want to be able to mark Labor Day as a symbol of the American Dream, we have to rededicate ourselves to investing in the future.
But, for the rest of the day, our readers should feel free to celebrate this last unofficial day of summer in the traditional way, with picnics, family get-togethers, car shows and visits to the Canfield Fair.
Working toward the future can resume tomorrow.