More laborers to celebrate Labor Day

I wasn’t necessarily going to write about this, but as it turns out Labor Day is a pretty good time to make this point.

When the unemployment numbers came out last Friday, it turned out that manufacturing jobs were one of the star performers as the sector gained 36,000 jobs in August – almost 1/4 of the total gain.

You may recall that for most of Barack Obama’s term I often referenced a union-backed organization called the Alliance for American Manufacturing, generally quoting their president, Scott Paul. He’s still there, and while he seemed to be pleased with the August results he’s still singing his protectionist song:

Did the robot revolution take the month off?

Adding 36,000 new factory jobs in August is good news for American workers. For the first time in a long time, manufacturing punched above its weight in the job market, accounting for 23 percent of total job growth. There’s great potential for continued manufacturing job growth – but only if we get the policy right.

How can we keep up the momentum? Pass an infrastructure bill with strong Buy America preferences to put more people back to work. The administration must also invest in training the workers of the future, move forward with rebalancing trade, and hold China accountable.

One facet of the AAM that interested me early on was their tracking of an Obama promise to create 1,000,000 manufacturing jobs – a pledge for which he fell far short by a factor of over 2/3. (Color me surprised </sarc>.) So it’s very intriguing to me that, through just eight months this year, the Trump score is already at 137,000. (Granted, there’s a slight bit of overlap from the Obama administration, but whatever bit of momentum began there may have come once it was assured Trump would be the victor in 2016.) On that pace, Trump would be in the 600 to 700 thousand range in his term.

I also think it’s fascinating that Paul talks about the “robot revolution” taking the month off but in the same statement beseeches the Trump administration to “invest in training the workers of the future.” As wage pressure is placed on the job market through misguided local and state government policies, such as the $15 minimum wage, tasks as mundane as attaching fenders on the assembly line or asking “do you want fries with that?” are going the way of the buggy whip, yielding to more skilled occupations such as working on those robots which make up the revolution. If you’ve seen pictures of modern assembly lines, automobiles and other large objects are put together more and more by mechanized means rather than a worker doing the same task of fastening rivets for eight long hours – a time when he could get tired, be less than at his best thanks to hard partying the night before, or just not trained up to the quality required for the task.

It’s true that unfair labor practices and currency manipulation have been factors in the decline of American manufacturing, but there were other processes that have affected all domestic businesses. Just ask yourself: how else would it be logical that an American manufacturer relocate to China when you consider the shipping time and costs and the learning curve needed to train hundreds of employees who may not be familiar with what the American market desires? Obviously those expenses were outweighed by the far lower wages they could pay Chinese workers, the removal of stringent regulations (not just environmental, but dealing with workers as well), and the lower tax costs. Over a 30-year period, “Made in America” became “Made in China,” and that’s often still the case today.

But I don’t think we have to be protectionist if we can create the conditions that cancel out several of the factors that drove manufacturing overseas. We already have a head start if we can keep our energy costs down by employing the resources we were blessed with instead of pie-in-the-sky schemes like dependence on unreliable wind or solar power. Add to this a corporate tax rate that is fair and not confiscatory – losing almost 4 out of every 10 dollars of corporate income seems to me a much larger piece of the pie than government needs or deserves – and a predictable regulatory regime based on common sense rather than being capricious and arbitrary, and much of the issue will be solved. At that point it’s up to the good old American worker to do the jobs Americans will do if given a shot. For example, someone has to know how to fix those machines that weld together automotive parts, and they probably won’t need a college degree to do it.

My father, who Lord willing will turn 82 in a month and has probably never turned on a computer, grew up in an era where he could finish high school and find a job at a concrete block plant doing maintenance. It was a union shop and gave him a good living, although he was unhappy at times with the union because it treated everyone equally whether they pulled their weight or not. Thousands of men around my hometown of Toledo who grew up in that era could tell a similar story as they got out of high school and went to work at a number of automotive (and other) manufacturing plants: Willys Jeep, GM Hydra-Matic transmission, Ford Stamping, Toledo Scale, Libbey Glass, and so forth – all union shops, and all providing a good middle-class income.

Kids graduating from high school now, though, are seemingly consigned to dead-end service jobs, as the days of your uncle getting you in at the Jeep plant are pretty much gone. But America needs to get back to making things, young men (and women) need jobs that can support a family, and the academic world needs a shakeout to a point where college is geared more toward the students who have the academic chops to succeed there. (Not everyone is college material in the traditional sense – some people just are geared toward and have the aptitude for working with their hands rather than sitting through a freshman English class.) A rebirth in American manufacturing can accomplish all of these goals.

So on this Labor Day and its implied salute to the American worker, consider what could be done to improve his or her lot. Lightening government’s load on industry seems to me a key step in making us the place that makes things again.

The state of worker freedom 2015

It’s been a tough year for Big Labor. From the worker freedom side, states are switching over to right-to-work status which gives the working man the ability to put hundreds of dollars more in their pockets annually by reducing or eliminating the forced payment of union dues. Meanwhile, the environmental lobby has grabbed the attention of the Obama administration from the left, meaning no Keystone XL pipeline the Teamsters support and a more rapid demise of the United Mine Workers union thanks to EPA regulations discouraging the use of coal. Ironically, Big Labor has allies on both those environmental issues in the Republican Party they rail against while shoveling millions to those who support the environmentalists.

But today I want to take a brief look at the former issue. In the next few months, there’s a good chance that Missouri could join the ranks of right-to-work states despite the fact it has a Democratic governor – the GOP has significant majorities in both houses of its legislature so it’s merely a matter of intestinal fortitude on their part.

After that, though, the pickings are far more slim. Most of the remaining closed-shop states have either a Democrat-controlled legislature – which means any right-to-work legislation is dead on arrival, as is annually the case in Maryland – or a Democratic governor who won’t sign it and knows the votes aren’t there to override. That eliminates most of the states which toil under closed shops.

A couple exceptions to this are Alaska and Ohio, but these states aren’t promising for different reasons. Alaska has a Republican-controlled legislature and a governor who is a Republican-turned-independent who ran on a unity ticket with the Democratic nominee to defeat former GOP Gov. Sean Parnell. But there’s no real push to adopt such legislation as it appears the energy industry, which is the state’s predominant private employer, is comfortable with the closed shops.

On the other hand, Ohio tried to pass right-to-work reforms in 2011 but they were overturned via referendum that same year. In an election year with solely local offices on the ballot, Big Labor was able to mobilize its army of volunteers and fool enough of the others to win a sizable victory. And while the dire predictions that the defeat of right-to-work would make Gov. John Kasich a one-term governor didn’t pan out, the current Presidential candidate has no appetite to go through that fight again. Moreover, GOP members of the Ohio legislature aren’t going to risk anything that could enhance Democratic turnout in a state Republicans need to carry in 2016.

So the fight in Missouri may be the last right-to-work battleground for awhile. It may be Labor Day of 2017 before we get significant movement one way or the other.

Some good news for Big Labor, for a change

After a tough stretch for Big Labor, this Labor Day finds some good news for them in the New York Times, of all places. It seems that union membership in the New York region is on the upswing, according to a study by two professors at the City University of New York Graduate Center. The pair credit more work in the construction sector as well as gains in the hotel industry.

Needless to say, these particular jobs are somewhat cyclical and can be lost at the drop of a hat. (Just ask thousands of Atlantic City casino workers whose employers close after this weekend.) But any good news is manna from heaven for Big Labor.

I also noted in reading the Times piece that the two professors who did the study, Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce, downplayed the impact of fast food workers and their attempts to organize. Yet in a separate op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Kentucky AFL-CIO head Bill Londrigan singled out the fast food industry as one where workers:

…have labored long and hard and not benefited in a satisfactory manner from the fruits of their labor. They have been pushed too far. The pendulum has swung too far away from workers, the poor, elderly, children and those that need the help of others for their survival.

The problem they have, though, is that fast-food workers are very replaceable. And Londrigan has to throw in an obligatory whine:

The rich have gotten too rich and the poor too poor and the rest squeezed in the declining middle.

Take your class envy card someplace else. I’ll agree that it is getting harder and harder for the middle class to get by, but it’s not necessarily that the rich are getting richer in general – it’s the rich who use the power of government for rent-seeking and weeding out potential competition. The unions don’t mind so much when the UAW benefits from a General Motors or Chrysler bailout, but just let various local politicians speak out negatively about the prospect of a unionized Volkswagen plant in Tennessee and suddenly government is the bad guy.

Perhaps unions aren’t completely to blame for the long, slow decline of American manufacturing over the last 50 years, but they haven’t necessarily helped the cause, either. Collective bargaining for the workers of one company is one thing, but enacting protectionist policies to discourage competition or discouraging productivity with onerous work rules are completely different animals. Some of the local unions have wised up, but too many just exist to collect worker dues and pay off politicians.

On a day to celebrate American labor, I stand for the right to work.

Labor Day, once again

Well, I suppose those of us who like summer can heave our collective sighs and recall the time it was.

Of all the holidays which dot the calendar, Labor Day is probably my least favorite. Sure, I appreciate the day off work but look at all the other things going on:

  • For many children (including my significant other’s), it’s literally the last day of summer vacation.
  • As a Shorebirds fan, after today I have seven months without baseball to dread.
  • Those in the local tourism industry see their window of opportunity beginning to close down, although the push to establish a “second season” in recent years has cushioned that blow to an extent.

But today is the day which Big Labor calls its own, allocating the celebration of the American working person despite the fact that the vast majority of workers don’t belong to a union. An area which is a union stronghold (like the city of my birth) is quite likely to have a Labor Day parade, and it irked me to no end that the Labor Day parade was much better attended and had greater participation than the Memorial Day parade which was often moved to the Saturday before. Something is amiss with those priorities.

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