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Labor Day 2018 presents challenges amid celebration

Monday, September 3, 2018

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

More and more Americans are actively participating in the labor market. Our current unemployment rate of 3.9 percent has dropped dramatically in recent years, and the U.S. economy added 160,000 new jobs in July 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 by a near-record 4.2 percent in the second quarter of this year. The U.S. Economic Policy Institute reports that the average hourly employee’s productivity has 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 from $22.11 to $22.65 , 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. The Mahoning Valley, for example, is a perfect case in point of the uneven improvements in the U.S. economy and its workforce.

July 2018 unemployment in the three-county Mahoning Valley stood at nearly twice the national rate, while joblessness in the city of Youngstown stood at 8.2 percent.

Economic disparities, long-term unemployment, wage stagnation, inflation 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 by the BLS.

In the Mahoning Valley, one of the two largest unions – United Auto Workers Local 1714 – ceased existence earlier this year and its membership was swallowed into the ranks of UAW Local 1112, a sign of the overall decline in union blood across the nation and of the declining fortunes of the GM Lordstown Complex, still one of our region’s largest industrial employers.

Workers there who have received no firm indication from GM leaders in Detroit about the plant’s future face Labor Day 2018 understandably anxious. Joining them are more than 400 soon-to-be laid-off workers from Northside Regional Medical Center, which is scheduled to close in about three weeks.

CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM

Yet despite those and other 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 setting up shop and service 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 vagaries of the once-mighty steel industry.

To be sure, American workers can savor their long and proud history on this 124th anniversary of Labor Day. Their contributions continue to raise the standard of living and quality of life for many.

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