It’s Labor Day: What does that mean for today’s workers?
Published 11:45 am Sunday, September 3, 2023
As we sit on the cusp of the Labor Day holiday this year, most people’s thoughts will likely be focused on the end of summer; one last cookout; and the return of football season – hopefully – the eventual return of cooler temperatures.
Few of us will stop to think about the “labor” behind the day.
Labor Day was established as a national holiday in 1894, an effort to assuage and recognize workers who drove the national economy often laboring in unsafe, horrific conditions for a pittance in pay. In the decades that followed, the labor union movement grew in America, advocating for the rights of workers – things like safety, reasonable working hours, fair pay. The unions played an important role in the much of 20th century – including here in the Miss-Lou – but they fell prey to the allure of power and politics, losing sight of the original calling and losing the respect of many Americans.
Email newsletter signup
In 1953, some 32 percent of Americans worked in manufacturing; today, only 8 percent do so. Technology, a global pandemic, computerization and AI are changing the way we work on a daily basis. The good folks at nerdwallet.com offered this overview of the U.S. workforce for Labor Day 2023:
- The lowest unemployment rate in five decades
The unemployment rate surged to a high of 14.7% in April 2020 at the start of the pandemic, but it didn’t stay there for long, BLS data shows. A year later, the unemployment rate fell to 6.1% and continued declining from there. By April 2023, unemployment hit 3.4% — a low not seen since May 1969.
Since March 2022, the unemployment rate has ranged from 3.4% to 3.7%. Its consistency reflects a resilient U.S. labor market despite economic woes, including high inflation and 11 federal funds rate hikes since March 2022.
- Women are gaining on men in the labor market
During the peak of unemployment in April 2020, a higher percentage of women (16.2%) were out of work than men (13.5%), according to the BLS. But as the overall unemployment rate declined, women caught up. The July 2023 seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 3.4% among women, compared with 3.6% among men.
- Unemployment is low among all tracked races and ethnicities
Here’s what the unemployment rate has looked like since the BLS started tracking unemployment by race and ethnicity. Data for white workers begins in 1945; Black or African American workers in 1972; Hispanic workers in 1973; and Asian workers in 2000.
- AI looks to be the new frontier in the workplace
Artificial intelligence is the latest disruptor to the workplace, accelerated by generative AI tools like ChatGPT from OpenAI, DALL-E and Bard. An estimated one-quarter of work tasks could be automated among the jobs most exposed to AI, according to a March report from Goldman Sachs, a global financial institution.
Another report released in July by McKinsey, a global consulting firm, estimates that by 2030, workplace activities that account for up to 30% of hours worked in the U.S. could be automated. Meanwhile, employers are scrambling to incorporate AI into their work, in some case offering high-six-figure salaries to experts who can tell them how to do it.
- Union membership is more rare than ever
About 14.3 million workers were part of a union in 2022, according to the BLS. But as a portion of the total U.S. workforce, union membership is more rare than ever. In 2022, just 10.1% of workers belonged to a union, down from 20.1% of workers in 1983, which is the earliest comparable data. Despite this, labor unions are enjoying high public approval ratings. According to a Gallup poll conducted in August 2023, 67% of Americans approve of labor unions. That figure has been incrementally rising since a low point of 48% in 2009.
- More workers are going on strike
Even while union membership is down, more workers are turning to strikes as a way to pressure employers to agree to higher wages and better working conditions. The number of workers participating in a major strike (involving at least 1,000 workers) increased by almost 50% from 2021 to 2022, according to the BLS.
In 2022, about 224,000 workers took part in a strike (of any size), according to data compiled by the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations Labor Action Tracker. The current count is a blip compared to past decades. For some historical context: 1.7 million people participated in a work stoppage in 1979, BLS data shows.
- Work-from-home arrangements are here to stay
The majority of full-time workers (59%) still spend their weeks on-site at their jobs, but the pandemic seems to have caused a permanent shift for many, with a larger share of workers now spending all or some of their time working from home. That’s according to the August 2023 Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes (SWAA).
Before the pandemic, workers spent less than 5% of their time working from home, according to the BLS’ American Time Use Survey. Now they do so more than 30% of the time, according to findings in the August SWAA.
The consortium of researchers and universities that has conducted the monthly online survey since May 2020 saw the figure pass 60% in fall 2021 at the height of the pandemic.
It’s an interesting perspective on the resilient American worker, and something to reflect on as you enjoy your Labor Day holiday.