Labor Day is a celebration of the American worker. But this Labor Day, what do Ohio’s workers have to celebrate, other than getting tomorrow off? Not so much.
In Toledo and across our state, today’s workers are better educated and far more productive than the labor force of a generation ago. But these achievements generally aren’t reflected in their paychecks or their bank accounts.
To the contrary, the typical worker in Ohio earns less than his or her counterpart did in 1979, when you take inflation into account. Ohio’s median wage — half of us make more, half less — is nearly 6 percent lower than the national figure.
And that’s if workers are fortunate enough to have jobs. Ohio’s unemployment rate has fallen, slowly, since the Great Recession officially ended five years ago. But since 2005, while the number of jobs has grown by 3.8 percent nationwide, Ohio has lost 2.3 percent of its jobs. (The matter hits close to home: Next month, The Blade is eliminating 131 production jobs and shifting printing operations to a third party.)
Just five of eight Ohio adults are in the work force, the lowest participation rate in at least 35 years. For women, it’s less than three of five. For African-American workers, it’s fewer than half. Ohioans who are in what should be their prime working years, between the ages of 25 and 54, are dropping out of the labor force rapidly.
That’s not to say Ohio’s economy is failing everyone: Inflation-adjusted income among the wealthiest 1 percent of Ohioans has risen by 70 percent since 1979. For everyone else, it’s down by 7 percent.
These gloomy figures come from this year’s edition of State of Working Ohio, an annual report compiled by the progressive advocacy group Policy Matters Ohio. Whatever your political or ideological persuasion, though, the report is essential reading — and should alarm you.
“Is this really the economy that we want for families in Ohio?” says Amy Hanauer, the executive director of Policy Matters Ohio and the principal author of the jobs report. “Let’s admit that regardless of party, this isn’t the outcome that we want to see.”
So what is worth celebrating? The administration of Gov. John Kasich, who is seeking re-election in November, asserts that contrary to the claims of the governor’s detractors, the jobs Ohio is creating tend to be in higher-wage sectors.
Since Governor Kasich took office in 2011, administration officials say, wages per person have risen faster than in the rest of the country. Employers are advertising plenty of good-paying jobs across the state, they add.
But can Ohio create and maintain an economy that works for all of its people? As Ms. Hanauer reminded me last week, our state “used to have an economy where, when productivity grew, workers saw the benefit. There is another way to do things — it requires a little more imagination and creativity than letting a bad status quo continue to worsen. But we know how to do it.”
Most of all, private employers need to ramp up their hiring. Elected officials — in Toledo, in Columbus, in Washington — can jump-start that process by pursuing public policies aimed at building an inclusive economy. Experience tells us that won’t happen unless and until voters make clear that’s what they want.
For starters, we can finally acknowledge that the tax-cutting strategy that state government has pursued since 2005, under administrations of both parties, hasn’t worked and won’t work. It hasn’t created the jobs, stimulated the economic growth, or raised the tax revenue that its champions continue to promise.
Instead, regressive tax cuts that favor the wealthiest Ohioans have aggravated income inequality. They have forced massive spending cutbacks in essential local and state services, notably education.
We can begin to reverse these pernicious trends by restoring investments and rehiring many of the 40,000 Ohio public employees — police officers, firefighters, teachers, social workers — who lost their jobs during the most recent recession. That will require committed leadership.
Despite substantial improvements in educational achievement, Ohio ranks a lousy 39th among the states in the percentage of its adults — about one out of four — with college degrees. By 2025, state officials estimate, three out of five jobs will require more education than a high-school diploma indicates.
We need to send more of our young people to college, without forcing them to take on student loan debt that will plague them for decades. Polls show that Ohio voters want the state to spend more on public higher education. It’s time to translate that sentiment into action.
Renewable-energy providers and energy-efficiency programs have created tens of thousands of jobs in the Toledo area and across Ohio in recent years. They can do so again, if Governor Kasich and state lawmakers — or their replacements — dump the bad new law that has frozen the state’s clean-energy standards.
We can continue to enable workers to organize and bargain collectively. Ohioans decisively, and properly, rejected the effort by Mr. Kasich and lawmakers to gut the bargaining rights of public employees three years ago.
But don’t be surprised if the General Assembly takes up “right to work” legislation in the lame-duck session that will follow the November election, even though Mr. Kasich and legislative leaders say such a measure is not among their priorities
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said much the same thing, until that state’s Legislature rammed through a right-to-work bill in a single day two years ago, and Mr. Snyder quickly signed it. Let’s hope Governor Kasich doesn’t display similar, shall we say, flexibility.
Public transportation can not only sustain jobs, by making sure that lower-income workers can get to their workplaces, but also create jobs by strengthening the overall local economy. In our community, though, the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority is disintegrating, as one suburb after another secedes from the bus system.
Replacing the unpopular property tax that funds TARTA with a regional sales tax could help stabilize the system. That change will require a display of leadership and advocacy by the area’s top elected officials and business executives that we haven’t seen so far.
Washington can help improve Ohio’s job climate too. Congress can renew extended unemployment benefits for long-term jobless workers. It can raise the federal minimum wage.
In addition to the tribute it pays workers, Labor Day is also the traditional kickoff of that part of the political campaign season that voters actually pay attention to. By Election Day, Ohioans will have the opportunity to vote their economic self-interest, as they define it, at the polls.
That can be the start of — or more precisely, a return to — the broadly shared prosperity that made Ohio a great state, and can do so again. And that truly would be something to celebrate, on Labor Day and every other day.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.