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Published: 9/2/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

COMMENTARY

Labor Day in Ohio: Lots to cheer, more to fear

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

On this Labor Day weekend, workers in Toledo and the rest of Ohio have much to celebrate -- but even more to lose sleep over.

As President Obama prepares to campaign in Toledo tomorrow, the contest between Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney shifts into high gear. Because the outcome of November's election will greatly determine what, if anything, Ohio workers will have to cheer about over the next four years, sitting out that vote is a luxury workers can't afford.

Our state appears to have weathered the worst of the Great Recession, even if economic recovery remains slower and more uneven than we would like. Gov. John Kasich told the Republican National Convention last week that Ohio has gained 122,000 jobs since he took office in January, 2011, compared to the nearly 400,000 jobs the state lost during the four previous years.

It's encouraging that Ohio's unemployment rate has dropped below the national rate. But just getting back to where we were before the recession hit, much less when the state and nation last prospered, will take years. Other elements of the local and state jobs picture are even more alarming.

A new report by the Brookings Institution ranks Toledo 36th among the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas in its "education gap." That's the distance between how much education workers have in a labor market and how much education job openings in that market require.

Toledo's performance might not seem too bad -- until you consider that our area ranks eighth from the bottom in job openings that demand a bachelor's degree or more education. Not a formula for meaningful economic growth.

Meanwhile, the progressive advocacy group Policy Matters Ohio today released its annual report on the State of Working Ohio. The good news: Ohio is adding manufacturing jobs at twice the rate of job growth in other parts of the state's economy.

That may be because we lost so many of those jobs during the recession; according to a separate recent study by Brookings, metro Toledo shed two-fifths of its manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010. We need every one of the jobs we're getting back.

Ohio jobs making durable goods, notably autos and auto parts, have grown more than three times faster than all jobs in the state, according to the Policy Matters report. One out of every eight jobs in Ohio is tied to the auto industry, and we're the leading producer of parts. You wonder where our state would be if Mr. Obama had not shepherded the federal bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors, which Mr. Romney continues to oppose.

Now the bad news: Participation by men in Ohio's labor force has reached its lowest point ever, Policy Matters says. The share of jobless Ohioans who have been out of work for more than six months is at an all-time high. The ratio of employment to population among black Ohioans is the lowest since 1983.

Ohio's median wage -- half of workers earn more, half less -- has dropped more since 2000 than in any state other than Michigan. That wage is now below the national average. The gap between earnings of white and black workers in our state is wider now than it was in 1979; that disparity persists even when education levels are equal.

The welcome job growth in Ohio's private sector has been offset by layoffs in the public sector: teachers, police officers, firefighters, social workers. That's the flip side of the crowing Mr. Kasich and the Republican-controlled General Assembly do about balancing the current state budget -- largely by slashing billions in aid to local school districts and communities, while cutting taxes for some of Ohio's wealthiest residents.

Amy Hanauer, Policy Matters Ohio's executive director and author of the report, says today's workers across the state are better educated and more productive than their parents, and put in longer hours, but often have less job opportunity and security.

"We're not keeping pace the way we should," Ms. Hanauer told me. "It's great for Ohio that unemployment has come down, but a scary thing is how many people have left the labor market, especially African-Americans.

"We need to bring people back to contribute to the economy, and to benefit from it," she says. "The people of Ohio care about jobs and job quality."

The Policy Matters report offers sensible recommendations to begin to reverse the trends it identifies: Restore essential public services, and the jobs of the people who provide them. Promote basic and higher education with tangible investment, not rhetoric. Such things should come before more unbalanced tax cuts, at the federal or state level.

Make manufacturing in this country a priority for public support. President Obama's stimulus package, including the auto bailout, has started to do that. But Ohio needs to do a better job of training workers for advanced and high-tech jobs, if the manufacturers who create such jobs are to locate and expand here.

Stop portraying financial, workplace, and environmental regulators, as well as union-represented workers, as public enemies. Last year's vote to repeal Senate Bill 5 made clear the value Ohioans place on workers' rights to organize and bargain collectively. Ohioans also have shown we appreciate the kind of appropriate, not overbearing, government regulation that promotes equal opportunity and broadly shared benefits of economic growth -- things that safeguard prosperity instead of subverting it.

We didn't hear much of that kind of talk at the GOP convention last week. Instead, we heard a lot about the evils of government spending and regulation, the virtues of austerity, and the glories of tax reduction, especially as it benefits the richest Americans.

We can expect to hear different talk at the Democratic gathering this week. But Ohioans need more than talk. They need cooperation between the public and private sectors to achieve a balanced, equitable, diversified state economy composed of well-educated, well-paid workers.

How to get there is a question to which Ohio workers should demand an answer from the presidential nominees, and all other candidates for public office this year. And based on what you hear or don't hear in response, vote accordingly.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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