Labor Day is a celebration of American work. It sometimes seems like an anachronism, a holdover from a day long gone when people worked in factories and churned out widgets with mechanical precision. That image often comes to people in dirty sepia tones like a faded old photograph of grandpa at his bench. Yet those days were more than grime and hard work, they were times when the US was at the height of its power around the world. No matter how you want to look at what we celebrate on Labor Day, scorn or longing, hard work went strong arm and arm with the power of this nation.
The accelerated decline of manufacturing in the last decade shows how our current unemployment problem has a lot to do with the simple fact that we stopped making stuff. It’s not a big leap to see that our power and prestige has gone away with those jobs.
The last decade has been especially hard on manufacturing jobs. As has been noted before, a full 6 million have been lost since the economic downturn in 2001, soon to be celebrated as the anniversary of 9/11 approaches. This data from the St Louis Fed shows the loss clearly:
The counter argument during this period has always been that our economy was transforming. The New Economy™ is about creating work from information, the processing and selling of data that replaced widgets from dirty old factories. Let’s look at the same manufacturing jobs data, expressed as a percent increase each month, compared with the growth of jobs in the economy overall:
The losses in manufacturing are striking – there has not been a month where manufacturing jobs increased over the last decade until recently. More importantly, the overall employment changes show that while other sectors of the economy are picking up some of the slack they are not coming anywhere near the levels necessary to call this a “transformation”. Manufacturing jobs disappeared but there have not been enough other jobs to replace them.
In the last year growth in manufacturing started to outpace general job growth for the first time in a decade, however. If there is a transformation in our economy, it’s back to where we once were – but it is only starting.
Manufacturing jobs are more than just the sweat of the workers. They are usually jobs that allow people to start right after high school with low skills and work their way up the ladder. New skills can be found with experience on the job, not time spent sitting in neatly ordered desks, yawning through seminars, or pouring over books. Given that people learn in different ways, these jobs represent opportunities for people who aren’t predisposed to learn by traditional methods. They are the ticket to the Middle Class™ that made this nation great.
The net loss in manufacturing jobs, about 6 million, represents most of the 8 million or so jobs necessary for us to reach full employment. They’ve also been concentrated in traditional manufacturing states like Ohio, where manufacturing employment went from 1 million in 2000 to 600k today – a net loss of 40%. That explains much of our politics in the last decade as we careened from one party dominance to another in Congress – scared and angry voters in key states have been constantly voting for change, even against their own choices in the last election.
Labor Day is a good day to spend time staring at the last charcoal of summer and contemplating what brought our nation to the place it is. The state of labor, especially the traditional view of what that means, has been central to the rise and fall of the US. If the images seem old and tired it’s because we have become old and tired ourselves.
The strength of this nation has been tied directly to the strength of strong arms and the most valuable resource we possess – our people. This is the day to remember that. Tomorrow is a good day to take action and do something about it.