This Labor Day, A Refocus on America’s Workers

By Scott Paul
Sep 06 2021
Members of the United Steelworkers (USW) take part in the “We Supply America” bus tour in Chesterton, Ind., on Aug. 16. Photo by United Steelworkers

There’s no doubt the past year and a half has been challenging. But it’s also created opportunity.

Over the past 18 months, transformational change has swept across America. Some of it welcomed, some not so much.

That change has impacted working people in profound ways, making many Americans oddly feel both more disposable and essential at the same time. Labor Day offers us a chance to take stock of a few of the lessons related to manufacturing jobs that we have learned, or should at least consider, and what they mean for the future of work.

The job market may never be the same. That sudden shock to employment at the start of the pandemic hasn’t completely abated. Manufacturing, for example, is still 378,000 jobs short of a full recovery. At the same time, wages for nearly all workers are rising at a better rate, more Americans are searching out better job opportunities, and the public opinion of unions is at a generational high.

While there is still much work to do, this healthy rebalancing was long overdue. Many corporations spend serious money on ads extolling the virtues of essential workers. The far more important metric will be how these same companies treat workers, where they locate production, and whether they call out the government of China for cultural genocide, forced labor, and other human rights abuses.

AAM President Scott Paul. Photo by United Steelworkers

Much of that worker-business rebalancing must be supported by a presidential administration that puts the interests of working people front and center. Thus far, the Biden administration is doing the right kinds of things. For manufacturing workers, I see that reflected in policies such as Made in America procurement, investment in infrastructure, bans on imports of goods made with forced labor, supply chain resiliency, and trade enforcement. President Biden also has chosen his cabinet members to reflect these worker-centric priorities, from Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai to positions throughout the federal government. While much of the spade work has been already done, many of the policies still need to get across the finish line. We’ll be closely monitoring that progress.

The quality of jobs—and the policy support that makes that possible—is critically important. So is the overall size of our job market. And that very much depends on how competitive the United States is moving forward. We discovered painful truths during the pandemic: Too many goods we take for granted simply aren’t Made in America. From PPE to semiconductors, we faced (and in many cases continue to face) shortages and a lack of production capacity in the U.S. One thing we know for certain: That work won’t come back to America on its own. We must have the right incentives, through tax, trade, procurement, workforce, investment, and other policies, to create change, which I know is possible. Because we also discovered that with a singular purpose, a massive, guaranteed market, and a surge of public investment, something approaching a miracle is possible. Our workers are mass-producing the single most important public health product in a generation — the COVID-19 vaccines — and we are also making them for the world.

Finally, if we want a return to normalcy, it’s time for all of us to take public health and safety more seriously. As of this posting, at least 648,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Our social, educational, vocational, and commercial lives and spaces have been completely upended. Ensure that you, your friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers are fully vaccinated when eligible. Let’s send COVID-19 into the dustbin of history, where it can join polio and smallpox. Other than buying an American-made product, it’s the very best thing you can do for our working men and women right now.