American Manufacturing Workers Still Enjoy a Compensation Premium Over Other Similar Workers

By Economic Policy Institute

In a new paper, EPI Distinguished Fellow Lawrence Mishel finds that, although the increased shift in manufacturing work to temporary staffing agencies has eroded manufacturing pay and job quality, manufacturing workers still earn 13.0 percent more in hourly compensation than comparable private-sector workers. This manufacturing premium, however, has declined by about one fourth (3.9 percentage points) since the 1980s, when it was 16.9 percent.

The manufacturing premium has eroded as manufacturing firms respond to competition by squeezing workers and suppliers—paying lower hourly wages and increasingly using lower-paid staffing agency workers. The wage advantage of workers directly employed in manufacturing has fallen from 14.7 percent in the 1980s to 10.4 percent in the 2010s, which represents a significant decline (of 4.3 percentage points or about 30 percent), but which still constitutes a substantial manufacturing wage premium. Meanwhile, staffing and temporary help services provided 11.3 percent of all manufacturing employment in 2015, up from just 2.3 percent in 1989. The increased use of workers through staff intermediaries lowered the manufacturing compensation premium by 4.0 percent in the 2000s.

“We should not give up on U.S. manufacturing, which is still a source of better-paying jobs,” said Mishel. “But because there is less of a pay advantage in manufacturing than there used to be, policies to expand manufacturing employment should be coupled with policies that make those jobs good jobs.”

The notion that manufacturing is a source of good jobs has been challenged most prominently by a 2017 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, which claims that the manufacturing compensation premium has disappeared. Mishel estimates the manufacturing premium by comparing the wages manufacturing workers earned to other comparable workers in the private sector, and then adjusting for the benefits earned and the impact of increased use of staffing firms (which is not completely captured in the underlying data). The resulting manufacturing compensation premium identified by this analysis, 13.0 percent in the 2010s, definitively refutes the CRS claim that the manufacturing compensation premium had disappeared.

The erosion of the manufacturing wage premium has been partially offset by improved benefits. Manufacturing workers have an advantage in benefits, primarily in insurance and retirement benefits, and this advantage grew between 1986 and 2017.

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Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work