In this election year of 2016, political candidates galore have given us lengthy speeches and diatribes about how American jobs should come back to these shores, and have lamented the economic reality that manufacturing is being outsourced to China, India, and Mexico and other countries around the world. They are correct, but this way of thinking has little to do with resurrecting the piece of economic pie that manufacturing holds in the economy, and much more to do with nostalgia.
The Halcyon days of the post-World War II era are the inspiration for many of these beliefs, that manufacturing is the key to entering the middle class, attaining the American dream, and resurrecting American economic prosperity. However, the key to a prosperous future lies not solely in manufacturing. This is the key error many of our policymakers seem to make.The economic realities of 2016 are not the same as those of 60 years ago. The reality is, America is more service-oriented than ever.
What truly brought the middle class stability that many politicians talk about seeking to resurrect, are unions. It was unions that fought for higher pay, benefits, breaks, and the five day week that made manufacturing prosperous in the first place. Automation in the form of the assembly line increased the pace of production, and made the industry what it is today. Union membership percentage nationwide was at its highest in 1954 at 35%. Ten years later, union membership had grown numerically, but the percentage of the population was slightly less. Many families grew up with a union worker in the household or knowing someone who was a union worker. In 1964 in Virginia, for example, even in a state not particularly friendly to unions, 15.8% of the workforce was unionized. In 2014, 50 years later, it was at 4.5%. In North Carolina in 2014, it was 2%. (According for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015, it increased to 3% in our state) Labor union membership has dwindled, and now even faces a demographic crisis, where most union members are 40 and older, and fewer younger workers are interested in joining a union. Strangely enough, conditions in the workplace have steadily declined over the years, leaving one to wonder why more young people don’t see unions as appealing options.Wages have been stagnant for thirty years, benefits are decreasing in scope (if one receives any at all) and part-time jobs and temp agencies have exploded instead of full-time work because some employers refuse to pay benefits. It only seems natural that they should seek out such an option. More young workers are entering the blue collar trades than ever before, so it should be a priority for us to bring them into the union fold.
We cannot time travel back to when unions were strong and manufacturing was the country’s backbone. Instead, what needs to happen is to adjust our sensibilities to fit that of the 21st century economy. Manufacturing is strong and vibrant, but the labor movement needs to renew a focus on organizing those in the service industry, the tech industry, healthcare, and those working on emerging technologies. These areas are where most job growth in the near future will be. If we are going to prosper like many politicians claim we should, we have to adjust where our focus lies for the future.