American labor’s vital signs still strong despite challenges


On this national holiday dedicated to the American worker, let’s take the pulse of our 160-million-strong U.S. labor force. Consider:

More and more of us are actively participating in the labor market. Our current unemployment rate of 4.9 percent has dropped dramatically in recent years, and the U.S. economy added 151,000 new jobs last month alone, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

More and more of us are producing goods and services more efficiently. The Gross Domestic Product of the nation expanded a healthy 1.2 percent in the second quarter of this year. The U.S. Economic Policy Institute reports that the average hourly employee’s productivity increased 80 percent over the past four decades.

More and more of us also are gaining deserved rewards for such enhanced productivity. Over the past 12 months, for example, the average hourly wage of the American worker increased 2.6 percent to $25.73, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Collectively, then, the vital signs of the labor force clearly remain strong, robust and ripe for additional improvement.

GNAWING CHALLENGES LINGER

But without a doubt, several gnawing challenges toward optimal growth across the board remain. Not everyone everywhere shares in the bounties that the above data so encouragingly illustrate.

Economic disparities, long-term unemployment, wage stagnation and other challenges remain sores on a U.S. economy still struggling to recover completely from the beatdown of the Great Recession. Many of us work longer and harder than ever before; indeed the average American now spends 47 hours per week on the job, according to the BLS.

That agency also reports that half of all workers make less than $520 a week, a figure that, adjusted for inflation, matches the level of earnings 18 years ago.

Organized labor – for whom Labor Day was created in 1894 after a national train strike resulted in the deaths of 30 workers at the hands of U.S. marshals – has seen better days as well. Its ranks have been decimated over the past three decades.

In 1983, 20.1 percent of the American workforce was unionized; in 2015, that rate was 11.1 percent and falling. Ohio lost more than 18,000 union jobs between 2014 and 2015 alone, according to a ranking this year by the BLS.

Despite that shrinkage, union-management bonds appear to be strengthening. Locally, the largest private-sector labor union in the Mahoning Valley – the United Auto Workers – worked hand in hand with General Motors Co. leaders to iron out successful local and national contracts last year that averted the catastrophic impact of a work stoppage. They also worked together as a team to design and manufacture this year’s new and improved Chevrolet Cruze in Lordstown, a partnership that has paid off handsomely. Just last month, for example, sales of the new version of the popular compact car skyrocketed 52.4 percent over levels of August 2015, according to sales figures released by GM last week.

Such mutually beneficial teamwork should set an example for all public- and private-sector organized labor groups in the Valley and the nation. Cooperation, not confrontation, is the key to success.

Despite some ongoing rough spots, American and Valley laborers nonetheless can celebrate a variety of success stories on this day set aside to honor their talent, commitment and hard work.

Unquestionably, this region’s economy has seen some bright spots in recent years, what with major manufacturers opening new facilities or expanding, small retailers opening their doors and service and hospitality industries showing marked growth. What’s more the housing market is improving.

The Valley, too, is gaining international recognition as a hot spot for the up-and-coming high-tech sector of additive manufacturing. Our region’s workforce has become increasingly more diversified than the days when the fortunes of Greater Youngstown residents rested far too heavily on the fortunes of the once-mighty steel industry.

To be sure, American workers can savor their long and proud history on this 122nd anniversary of Labor Day.

Today, as in 1894, the holiday serves as a national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

And even though challenges and struggles linger today, one must never lose sight of the value of America’s enduring and robust work ethic that has forged our nation into the great global powerhouse it remains today.

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