By FRANK STRICKER
1. Unemployment. Unemployment fell again, reaching 3.6%. That’s about where it was in February of 2020.
But the rates for some categories are still terribly high: African-Americans: 6.2%; Disabled Persons: 8.8%; Teens: 10%; and Black Teens: 22.9%.
2. Job Totals. Employers added 431,000 non-farm jobs. Not blockbuster numbers but a C+. Areas that did well included retail trade and transport and warehouse employment. The health-care sector changed little in March, and it is still about 300,000 below pre-pandemic levels, despite the fact that there are more sick people.
3. What’s normal? Some commentators have announced that we are back to full employment or at least normal unemployment. Non-farm jobs were just 1.6 million below February 2020. But we need to think more deeply. Even to get back to conventional normal, we actually need 4 million jobs because–surprise–the population and potential labor force increased over two years. Furthermore, conventional normal leaves out millions of people who want jobs but are just outside the labor force and not counted as unemployed because they aren’t actively searching for work. The National Jobs for All Network emphasizes that while there were only 6 million officially unemployed persons in March, there were 5.7 million job-wanters not currently searching and 4.2 million part-time workers who wanted full-time work (See the Full Count for March in this issue). The total number of people who wanted a job or an upgrade was 15.9 million. To clear out just half of that deficit would require 8 million jobs.
4. Plenty of Job Vacancies? In January and February, the number of job openings reported by employers fell a bit from record-high levels to around 10.7 million. Worker quit-rates also fell slightly. On paper there are job openings for many of the unemployed and underemployed. But perhaps some openings are phantoms. We hear occasionally from persons who answer many job postings and never hear back. But aside from the possibility that some vacancies aren’t real, something important is still happening.
5. The Great Resignation-and-Resistance Movement Continues. It may be losing a little steam, but quit-rates are still unusually high and so is the number of unionization drives. A handful of Starbucks stores have voted to go union, and a hundred more are petitioning for a vote. An independent union on Staten Island, the Amazon Labor Union, is the first ever to win an election at an Amazon warehouse. It’s nothing new that people are unhappy with their jobs, but more are willing to act upon that feeling by quitting to go home or find a new job, or by organizing. These are rational responses to years of workplace oppression for millions of workers.
In 2020 and 2021, Covid-19 dangers and generous federal income supports made workers more careful about job choices, more resentful about employers’ lack of concern for their safety, and more likely to walk away from jobs. Most of the pandemic benefits are gone, but quit-rates are still high. A new Pew Research Foundation survey found that the three leading reasons why employees quit were low pay, limited advancement opportunities, and disrespect at work. Many also mentioned child-care issues. Most who quit found new jobs, and most thought those were better jobs. So most quitters do not stay quit. Changing jobs has long been a way to improve one’s economic situation, but more people are doing it now.
The Pew survey does not seem to show employees’ Covid-19 concerns, but they are still active. As one example, workers at Activision recently staged a virtual walkout after the company lifted its vaccine mandates and pressured employees to come back to the office.
6. Government Job Programs. The need for millions of truly good jobs is not being solved in today’s job market. It cannot be fully solved by individual actions or even by more unionization. Government job programs are required to create millions of jobs that pay well, offer decent benefits, and are open to all social groups.
7. The Inflation Threat. Average wages are climbing, but high inflation is erasing wage gains for most employees. High inflation is also causing experts–Paul Krugman for one–to call on government officials to cool the economy. In effect, Krugman and others are asking for more unemployment, and they may even want a recession.
Aren’t there other ways to deal with inflation? How about selective price-and-profit controls on, for example, petroleum products? Or, better, more subsidies to users of alternative energy sources? Why not offer all but affluent households income cushions, including a reboot of the lapsed Child Tax Credit expansion? Why not get really wild and crazy and incentivize economists to find better inflation remedies than throwing people out of work?
Frank Stricker is on the Board and Executive Committee of the National Jobs for All Network. He taught history and labor studies for many years at California State University, Dominguez Hills. His book, American Unemployment: Past, Present, and Future (2020), shows that excessive unemployment, not full employment, has been the rule for most of the last century and a half. And a main cause has been willed ignorance.