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Americans Don’t Miss Manufacturing — They Miss Unions

This is In Real Terms, a column analyzing the week in economic news. Comments? Criticisms? Ideas for future columns? Email me or drop a note in the comments.

U.S. manufacturing jobs, I argued a few weeks ago, are never coming back. But that doesn’t stop politicians from talking about them. Donald Trump scored his knockout blow in Indiana in part by railing against the decision by Carrier, a local air-conditioning manufacturer, to shift production to Mexico. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have sparred throughout their race over who would best protect manufacturing jobs. And the man they are all trying to replace, President Obama, pledged during his reelection campaign to create a million manufacturing jobs during his second term; he’s still about 700,000 jobs short of that goal.

Candidates talk about manufacturing because of what it represents in the popular imagination: a source of stable, well-paying jobs, especially for people without a college degree. But that image is rooted more in nostalgia than in reality. Manufacturing no longer plays its former role in the economy, and not only because there are far fewer factory jobs than in the past. The jobs being created today often pay less than those of the past — sometimes far less.

A new report this week from the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley, found that a third of production workers — non-managers working on factory floors and in related occupations — earn so little that their families receive some form of public assistance such as food stamps or the Earned Income Tax Credit. Many of those workers are temps, who account for a growing share of factory employment. The median wage for a manufacturing production worker, according to separate data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was $16.14 an hour in 2015, below the $17.40 an hour for all workers.

On average, manufacturing jobs still pay better than most jobs available to people without a college degree. The median manufacturing worker without a bachelor’s degree earned $15 an hour in 2015, a dollar more than similarly educated workers in other industries.1 But those averages obscure a great deal of variation beneath the surface. Average manufacturing wages are inflated by high-earning veterans; newly created jobs tend to pay less. And there are substantial regional variations. The average manufacturing production worker in Michigan earns $20.80 an hour, vs.$18.86 in South Carolina, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Why do factory workers make more in Michigan? In a word: unions. The Midwest was, at least until recently, a bastion of union strength. Southern states, by contrast, are mostly “right-to-work” states where unions never gained a strong foothold. Private-sector unions have been shrinking across the country for decades, but they are stronger in the Midwest than in most other parts of the country. In Michigan, 23 percent of manufacturing production workers were union members in 2015; in South Carolina, less than 2 percent were.2

Unions also help explain why the middle class is healthier in the Midwest than in the Southeast, where manufacturing jobs have been growing rapidly in recent decades. A new analysis from the Pew Research Center this week explored the state of the middle class in different parts of the country by looking at the share of households making between two-thirds and double the national median income, after controlling for the local cost of living. In many Midwestern cities, 60 percent or more of households are considered “middle-income” by this definition; in some Southern cities, even those with large manufacturing bases, middle-income households are now in the minority.

Even in the Midwest, however, unions are weakening and the middle class is shrinking. In the Indianapolis metro area, where the Carrier plant Trump talks about is located, the share of households in the middle tier of earners has shrunk to 54.8 percent in 2014 from 58.9 percent in 2000. And unlike in some parts of the country, the decline in the middle class there has been primarily driven by people falling into the lower tier of earners, not moving up. The Carrier plant, where workers make more than $20 an hour, is unionized.

Cause and effect here is complicated. Unions have been weakened by some of the same forces that are driving down wages overall, such as globalization and automation. And while unions benefit their members, economists disagree over whether they are good for the economy as a whole. Liberal economists note that overall wages tend to be higher in union-friendly states; conservative economists counter that unemployment tends to be higher in those states, too.

But this much is clear: For all of the glow that surrounds manufacturing jobs in political rhetoric, there is nothing inherently special about them. Some pay well; others don’t. They are not immune from the forces that have led to slow wage growth in other sectors of the economy. When politicians pledge to protect manufacturing jobs, they really mean a certain kind of job: well-paid, long-lasting, with opportunities for advancement. Those aren’t qualities associated with working on a factory floor; they’re qualities associated with being a member of a union.


When the Federal Reserve’s policy-making Open Market Committee meets next month to decide whether to raise interest rates, every one of the 10 voting members will be white. Eleven of the 12 regional Fed bank presidents, who rotate voting responsibility, are white, and not one is black or Latino. (Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari is Indian-American.) The Fed does a bit better when it comes to gender balance — Chair Janet Yellen is a woman, as are three other voting FOMC members. But overall, the people making U.S. monetary policy are disproportionately white men.

Does that matter? More than 100 members of Congress think so. In a letter to Yellen on Thursday, 11 senators and 116 members of the House of Representatives — all of them Democrats — wrote that they are “deeply concerned that the Federal Reserve has not yet fulfilled its statutory and moral obligation to ensure that its leadership reflects the composition of our diverse nation.” The letter is only the latest effort to draw more attention to the Fed’s lack of diversity: A report earlier this year from the liberal Center for Popular Democracy highlighted the issue, and several members of Congress also asked Yellen about it when she testified on Capitol Hill in February. (Bernie Sanders signed the letter. Hillary Clinton, who wasn’t eligible to sign since she isn’t in Congress, said she agreed with the message.)

It isn’t clear whether policy would be any different if the Fed were more diverse. But the letter writers and their allies argue that at the very least the Fed’s lack of representation could be skewing the way policymakers view the economy. By law, the Fed must balance two competing goals: maintaining stable prices (which the Fed defines as inflation of about 2 percent per year) and promoting full employment. In recent months, Yellen and her colleagues have begun the process of raising interest rates — concluding, in effect, that with the unemployment rate down to 5 percent, the “full employment” part of their mandate is largely complete. But the unemployment rate for African-Americans was 8.8 percent in April, as high as the white unemployment rate was in the middle of the recession. For them, “full employment” remains a long way off.

The long road back

Last week I noted that Americans who graduated from college during the recession are still struggling to make up for the slow start to their careers. The Wall Street Journal this week told the even more harrowing tale of people who lost jobs during the recession, many of whom still bear deep financial and psychological scars.

That isn’t surprising. Losing a job is a significant setback in any context, but it is far worse when a bad economy makes it hard to get back to work quickly. People who are laid off in a recession are far more likely to become unemployed for more than six months, which can then make it harder to find a job even once the economy improves. One estimate cited by the Journal found that people who lose jobs during a recession continue to make 15 to 20 percent less than their peers who kept their jobs, even a decade or more after the recession ended. And that is just in the typical recession; the most recent downturn was far worse.

Number of the week

Just under 8 million Americans were looking for work in March, and employers had 5.8 million jobs available to be filled. Economists look at the ratio of those numbers as a gauge of the health of the labor market, and by that measure, the economy is looking good: There were 1.4 unemployed workers for every open position in March, the fewest since 2001.

Don’t take the workers-per-job ratio too literally, though. The official definition of “unemployment” leaves out plenty of people who want jobs, and the government count of job openings is also incomplete, counting only positions for which companies are actively recruiting. But alternative measures of both unemployment and openings show the same trend: There are more jobs and fewer workers to fill them. That’s good news for workers who want jobs, and also for those who already have them — at some point, companies that want to attract workers will have to start offering higher pay.


Americans are having fewer babies. Janet Adamy looks at the causes and consequences of the U.S. “baby lull.”

Eduardo Porter argues the government should do more to create good jobs for those displaced by the transition toward a service-based economy.

Timothy O’Brien, who saw Donald Trump’s tax returns as part of a lawsuit a decade ago, provides some hints as to what voters might learn if Trump ever releases the documents publicly.

Lam Thuy Vo and Josh Zumbrun dive into the data on the jobs created since the start of the recession.

In much of the country, poor people don’t have access to broadband internet, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation.


  1. Based on my own calculations from Current Population Survey microdata.

  2. Based on Current Population Survey microdata.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.