All three remaining presidential candidates—Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders—have decried the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States and have promised, in one way or another, to bring those jobs back.
However, as readers know, I hold no nostalgia for industry or for the supposedly good manufacturing jobs that were the mainstay of the American Dream in the postwar period.
to the extent that manufacturing jobs were “good jobs” (and, in my view, we do need to dispute that idea that they really were “good jobs”), it wasn’t because workers produced real, tangible goods; it’s because the workers were unionized and were able (with the aid of higher real minimum wages, better-financed government supervision of worker safety, and so on) to bargain over their pay and working conditions. They aren’t able to do that now in most of the private-sector service-producing industries. In other words, it’s not what workers produce but under what conditions they produce.
I continue to believe we need to puncture the myth that all those manufacturing jobs were good jobs. We also need to look at what’s happened with those jobs in recent decades. As you can see from the chart above, while U.S. manufacturing wages (for production and nonsupervisory workers) were higher than the hourly wages for all private-sector workers until a decade ago, they’re now less (by more than a dollar an hour). That’s why, as the National Employment Law Project (pdf) has shown, manufacturing production wages now rank in the bottom half of all jobs in the United States.*
So, Ben Casselman is right:
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.
The problem is, we’re not seeing those kinds of decently paid, secure jobs anywhere across the landscape of the U.S. economy—in manufacturing, services, or anywhere else.
The precipitous decline in unions is one part of the explanation. At a more general level, however, at least as significant (even when unions were stronger) is the fact that workers have little say in the main institutions governing the economy—in the enterprises where they work, the communities in which they live, and the governments they vote for and to which they pay taxes.
Until that changes—until workers are able to participate in making key decisions about their lives and livelihoods—the promise of creating more jobs in one sector or another is merely a pipe dream that is being manufactured to keep things just as they are.
*However, while many analysts overlook this, it is still the case that weekly earnings for manufacturing workers (the red line in the chart below) remain higher than those for other workers in the private sector (the blue line):