Much is being said in the capitalist media about the monthly jobs report for April issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the BLS, Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 263,000 in April, and the unemployment rate declined to 3.6 percent.”
This is being reported as good news for workers. But is it really easier to find a job these days?
A closer look shows that the decline in the unemployment rate isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
According to the BLS, only “People who are jobless, looking for a job, and available for work are counted as unemployed. … People who are neither employed nor unemployed are not in the labor force.”
The government calculates the jobless rate by surveys, mostly done by telephone, asking people if they worked or looked for work in the preceding week.
Obviously, if you don’t have a phone, you’re not likely to be counted. There are many homeless people out there who have neither a place to live nor a phone. In 2018, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, an average of more than half a million people in the U.S. — 553,000 — were homeless each night.
For the most part, they are “neither employed nor unemployed,” according to BLS criteria and therefore “not in the labor force.” People who have been without work for a long time are classified as “discouraged workers” and simply not counted.
So what the BLS reports each month on the rate of unemployment is useful only as a relative, not an absolute, figure. It doesn’t tell us how many people are really out of work, but it does show a trend.
The rise and fall of these numbers, while they in no way present an overview of the economy, should give us an idea of whether conditions for the working class are improving or worsening.
One of the figures that the Trump administration boasted about was a slight fall in the official unemployment rate, to 3.6 percent, which is being trumpeted as the lowest since December 1969. Does that sound real to you?
Well, it isn’t. Because there was also a big drop last month in the number of people who said they were looking for work. And that drop in what is called the “participation rate” accounted for most of the drop in official unemployment. According to the BLS, some 490,000 workers — that’s nearly half a million — dropped out of the labor force last month.
This decline in the number of people looking for work has been going on every month since December. And it runs counter to the fact that the population has been increasing in this period. The BLS does not give reasons for why fewer people are looking for work, but becoming “discouraged workers” who have given up on finding a job must be an important factor.
For Black workers, official unemployment rose 0.2 percent to 6.7 percent. That does not account for those who are involuntarily working part-time or are “discouraged.”
Wages up? What they don’t say
The May 4 New York Times gave its rosy interpretation of the BLS report, writing, “[W]ith average hourly earnings up 3.2 percent from a year ago, ordinary workers are finally sharing in the economy’s bounty.” Actually, the BLS report said that the wages of “rank-and-file workers” had declined, not risen, in the previous month by a tenth of 1 percent, but did rise over the past year by 2.9 percent, not the 3.2 percent cited by the Times.
However, the BLS reports, “Real average hourly earnings” — reflecting inflation — “increased 1.3 percent, seasonally adjusted, from March 2018 to March 2019.”
And the “ordinary workers” who the Times says got an increase of 3.2 percent must include some managers who got bigger increases than the rank and file.
The median wage for workers with some college education but not a four-year degree is just $835 a week. People with no college education earn considerably less than that and are living below the official poverty level if they support a family.
What is missing in the Times report — and in all the capitalist media — is any recognition of workers’ struggles for higher pay in this period. They write as though wage increases have been “given” by employers out of the goodness of their hearts, when the truth is that workers have had to fight tooth and nail for the smallest increases — at a time when millionaires were becoming billionaires.
Completely ignored is the fact that the number of workers involved in work stoppages last year was the highest since 1986.
Strikes and walkouts as workers struggle
It is important to note that the great walkouts by tens of thousands of teachers and other education workers in many states, which began almost a year and a half ago, are not even covered by the BLS statistics on strikes.
What began in February 2018, when education workers in West Virginia hit the bricks, was followed over the next two months by teachers and other education workers walking out in Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kentucky.
They won improvements in wages and working conditions in these generally low-wage states despite anti-labor laws, some of which make strikes by teachers illegal. But the support the workers got from the communities they serve made it impossible for the reactionary governments in these states to move against them.
Along with these strikes and walkouts have been many campaigns across the country to raise the minimum wage. According to a posting last November by raisetheminimumwage.com, the Fight for $15 campaign had won $68 billion in raises for 22 million workers, especially in fast food and other service industries.
Yet this reactionary, anti-worker Trump administration has the utter gall to claim credit for any wage increases workers’ have won!
These struggles were most often spearheaded by people of color, migrants, women and other gender-oppressed workers. They are the very people this government has viciously attacked on a wide number of fronts.
So there is some genuine good news in the latest BLS report: Wages on average are staying ahead of inflation, but no thanks to the capitalist system or its political representatives. We give credit to the workers who have been organizing and fighting the exploiters of their labor.