News & Commentary

April 7, 2019

The March jobs report revealed that the U.S. added 196,000 jobs last month, exceeding forecasts and demonstrating recovery from February’s slowdown. The numbers in Friday’s monthly report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate strong, sustainable economic growth.  Unemployment remains at 3.8%.  The New York Times explains that wage gains – March 2019’s hourly wages were 3.2% higher than March 2018’s – are keeping ahead of inflation at a steady pace.  These gains signal economic health, and may be the “catalyst” for continued economic expansion, since higher wages drive consumer demand.  Vox’s assessment is much less generous, for wage gains that just barely beat or meet inflation really mean that most Americans’ paychecks fail to reflect the economy’s long-running expansion.  The Wall Street Journal walks through the numbers and also explains their effect on President Trump’s hostile dynamic with officials of the Federal Reserve.  Predictors of a coming recession persist, but some fears are abating.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to grant an additional 30,000 temporary guest worker visas for the summer, bringing the season’s total number to 63,000 (and the fiscal year’s total to 96,000, which is the highest figure since 2007, according to the Washington Post).  H-2B visas authorize foreign workers to enter the U.S. for a short-term period; predominately, the visas go to individuals from Mexico and Central America, who then fill seasonal needs in nonagricultural jobs that do not require higher education (namely, in the landscaping, forestry, seafood, and hospitality industries).  Tourist destinations and coastal towns with lower year-round populations especially rely on these foreign workers.  But the workers, though in high demand, are not in a position to negotiate for higher wages.  Daniel Costa of the Economics Policy Institute is among those who criticize the guest-worker program as a means of maintaining low costs for “employers and corporate lobbyists” through the use of “cheap, captive labor.”  EPI’s research reveals that H-2B workers earn significantly lower wages than permanent U.S. workers in the same jobs.  H-2B workers are also vulnerable to their bosses’ and recruiters’ abuse and exploitation.  Trump’s “glaring contradiction” should not go unnoticed, Costa urges – the president’s “extreme actions to expel” or block immigrants from the U.S. coincide with “letting migrants enter the country if they’re coming for the explicit purpose of being taken advantage of by employers.”

To compete for in-demand, short-supplied workers, some manufacturers are enhancing benefits packages. Minnesota’s Star Tribune reports that local manufacturers, including high-tech firms and especially mid-sized companies seeking to grow, are struggling to fill their labor needs.  To attract and retain skilled workers, companies are investing in better health care packages and a wider suite of benefits, including access to mental health and wellness care. The manufacturing industry added 284,000 jobs in 2018, which was its best calendar year for job growth since 1997.  But, this same industry may be reversing course due to the effects of tariffs and trade wars; in March 2019, manufacturing lost 6,000 jobs (in the auto sector, heavily).

Tesla, Inc.’s board of directors has investigated an incident between Elon Musk and a departing employee.  According to accounts shared with Bloomberg News, Musk “made physical contact with the staffer in a heated confrontation that drew the attention of other employees and spilled into a hallway and later the parking lot.”  Descriptions of said contact vary – from a “light touch or tap” to a push; the board concluded only that there was no “physical altercation.”  The incident occurred in September, when Musk’s behavior was drawing widespread scrutiny from the SEC, directors, investors, and press.  The “senior lead” employee had resigned, but was retrieving his belongings from the Fremont production facility when Musk blocked his way and began to shout expletives. Current and former employees expressed to Bloomberg that they have feared their boss’s volatile, hard-driving behavior.

Tech workers in China are posting online protests to their punishing, 72-hour work weeks, Reuters reports.  On Microsoft’s GitHub, posters have listed firms to blacklist, including e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and DJI Technology Co, Ltd., which makes drones.

Graduate workers for the University of Illinois-Chicago have reached a tentative agreement with the administration and have ended their three-week strike, the Chicago Tribune reports.  On Friday, the Graduate Employees Organization, which represents 1,500 graduate instructors and assistants, announced that members can vote on a three-year contract that offers higher pay, eliminates fees, and cuts health care costs.  The settlement also protects the pay of those who were on strike, but it requires the workers to make up the missed work hours before May 3rd.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, exploring a bid for U.S. presidency, told Las Vegas’s Culinary Union workers that he would stand with them in a strike against casinos, the Las Vegas Review Journal reports.  De Blasio stressed that voters should “hold Democrats accountable” so that the party returns to its roots as the party of labor.  In his recent tour of the country, the mayor has emphasized labor and economic issues and has promoted guaranteed paid sick leave, universal health care, and free pre-kindergarten, among other policy initiatives.

President Trump claims that the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) will vote for him in the 2020 election, and would not for former Vice President Biden.  Biden spoke to IBEW members on Friday, and Trump soon after posted that has secured their votes, since he’s employed thousands of electricians in his capacity as a real estate developer.  In 2016, IBEW endorsed Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.


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