These are neither the best of times nor the worst of times for American workers marking today’s national holiday dedicated to their ingenuity and productivity.
On the plus side, more and more of us are actively participating in the labor market. Our national unemployment rate of 4.4 percent has dropped dramatically in recent years, and the U.S. economy added 156,000 new jobs last month alone, according to data released Friday by the U.S. Department of Labor.
More and more of us also are producing goods and services more efficiently. The Gross Domestic Product of the nation expanded at a robust 3 percent in the second quarter of 2017. 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 1.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Collectively, then, the vital signs of America’s labor force remain relatively 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.
And not all regions are sharing in near record-low unemployment. Mahoning Valley joblessness ticked up to 6.6 percent this summer; in Youngstown, the rate stands unacceptably high at 10 percent.
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.
According to a report issued by Ohio Policy Matters last week, the share of workers in the state in unions declined between 1983 and 2016 from 28 percent to 12 percent of men and from 18 to 11 percent of women.
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 in ironing out mutually beneficial contracts in the last round of talks. They also worked together as a team to design and manufacture this year’s new and improved Chevrolet Cruze in Lordstown, and are working together to deal with a significant loss in sales of their product due to lower gasoline prices and higher demand for larger vehicles.
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 job creators building new facilities, such as the $1 billion Trumbull Energy Center in Lordstown and the new chill-can campus rising on Youngstown’s East Side.
As we mentioned Saturday, 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 123rd 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 many challenges and struggles linger today – especially for the Mahoning Valley workforce – one must never lose sight of the value of America’s enduring and robust work ethic that has forged our nation into the global economic powerhouse it remains today.