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As manufacturing bounces back from recession, unions are left behind

January 17, 2013
The Washington Post
Jim Tankersley

Last July was a good month for factory workers in Anderson, Ind., where a Honda parts supplier announced plans to build a new plant and create up to 325 jobs. But it was a grim month in the Cleveland suburbs, where an industrial plastics firm told the state of Ohio it was closing a plant and laying off 150 people.

Nearly all of the Ohio workers belonged to a labor union. Workers at the Indiana plant don’t. Their fates fit a post-recession pattern: American factories are hiring again, but they’re not hiring union members.

U.S. manufacturers have added a half-million new workers since the end of 2009, making the sector one of the few bright spots in an otherwise weak recovery. And yet there were 4 percent fewer union factory workers in 2012 than there were in 2010, according to federal survey data. On balance, all of the job gains in manufacturing have been non-union.

The trend underscores a central conundrum in the “manufacturing renaissance” that President Obama loves to tout as an economic accomplishment: The new manufacturing jobs are different from the ones that delivered millions of American workers a ticket to the middle class over the past half-century.

It used to be that factory jobs paid substantially better than other jobs in the private sector, particularly for workers who didn’t go to college. That’s less true today, especially for non-union workers in the industry, who earn salaries that are about 7 percent lower than similar workers who are represented by a union.

By one measure — average hourly earnings — a typical manufacturing worker now earns less than a typical private-sector worker of any industry. Throughout the 30 years before the recession, the reverse was the case.

The changes have very likely allowed U.S. manufacturers to compete better in the global economy, and in the process, to start hiring again. Conservative economists say that as U.S. companies pay workers less, the firms’ costs go down and they become more attractive to investors.

Unions, contends James Sherk, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, have not been able to sell themselves as a “value proposition” in the manufacturing sector. “Unionized firms are not getting the investment,” he said. “Where investors see the opportunity is non-unionized firms.”

On the other hand, depressed manufacturing pay means that middle-class consumers, who many economists see as the engine of economic growth, have less money to spend.

The typical non-union factory worker earned less in 2011, after adjusting for inflation, than he or she did in 2009. There’s a reason why individual workers are taking these jobs nonetheless: They don’t have much leverage to demand higher salaries because there continue to be far more workers looking for manufacturing jobs than actual jobs to fill. The unemployment rate for manufacturing workers was 7.5 percent in December, according to the Labor Department.

Union leaders and liberal economists say the decline in unionized factory jobs is a result of efforts by conservative policymakers to limit the power of labor groups. They argue the ripple effects on worker wages hurt people across the economy, not just those who work in manufacturing or belong to unions.

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