Unit 7: Labor Markets

Much of what is discussed in economics is seen from the viewpoint of a business owner.  It is sometimes easy to overlook the contributions of labor.  This section is devoted to looking at the contributions of labor in the field of economics.  I will try to explain this section using positive economic statements, rather than normative ones.

The Demand for Labor

Acquiring skills can be costly.  In the United States, workers usually pay the cost of acquiring skills before they receive a benefit in the form of a higher wage.  As was discussed in unit 4,  human capital is the accumulated skill and knowledge of human beings.  Remember from unit one, there is an opportunity cost in acquiring skills, which includes such things as tuition and reduced earnings.  Businesses are willing to pay a higher wage rate to a higher-skilled worker than to low-skilled worker.   Wage rates workers receive can also be influenced by changes in the supply of labor.   An increase in the supply of labor, such as an increase in the number of adults, can have the affect of pushing down wages.  With respect to a firm’s demand for labor, both price and non-price issues come into play.  The law of demand affects a firm’s demand for labor quite simply: if the wage rate increases the quantity of labor demanded decreases, and vise versa.  With respect to issues other than wages, a firm’s demand for labor will decrease if the firm’s output price decreases.

Labor Unions

union1Labor unions were born out of social change of the industrial revolution.  Labor unions are associations of workers which seek to promote their members interests.  Unions came into existence because workers felt that the owners of business were not representing their interests.  Labor unions have had a long struggle in our nation’s history to acquire a change in their position.  This struggle has cost many their lives.  Our nation has declared a national holiday (Labor Day) to honor the labor struggle and workers.

A Very Short History of Labor in the United States

Why would workers want to organize themselves into a union?  As has been demonstrated in previous units, capitalism stresses the profit motive. One way to increase profits is to reduce wages, benefits, and any costly improvements to worker safety.   This creates tension between management who want to increase profits for either their benefit or the benefit of stockholders, and workers, whose goals are to earn a living wage and a safe work environment.

samgompersThe man who is the first person who needs to be discussed in United States labor history is Samuel Gompers.  Samuel Gompers led the AFL (American Federation of Labor) from 1886 to 1924.  He began organizing skilled unions.  Later in the labor movement, unskilled labor also began to organize.    By the turn of the twentieth century, the membership of the AFL was 1.7 million.   By the beginning of World War I, it climbed to 2 million.  Gompers held conservative political views and believed that trade unionists should accept the economic system.  He was also resistant to include women, minorities, especially blacks, and non-skilled workers in the AFL.  As a result, a rival, more radical organization, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed. However, their  numbers  remained small compared to American Federation of Labor.  Regardless of the union, it was recognized in the early part of the twentieth century that individual workers could not secure bargaining power on their own against huge corporations.  But thousands of workers banding together did have a certain amount of leverage- they could withhold their labor. That is why early activists used the slogan: “individually we beg, collectively we bargain”.  Unions exist because workers realize that acting together provides them with more bargaining power than would acting individually and being at the mercy of their employers.  Corporations used a number of methods to defeat the labor movement, from blacklisting union members, to court orders prohibiting strikes, to the use of violence to resist labor’s demands.  The struggle even went to the court of public opinion.  Many Americans saw unions as subversive, un-American, and in some cases, evil.

The early labor struggle focused on safer working conditions, a reduced work week, and wages. It was not easy starting a union or participating in a union strike.  The owners of corporations had a great deal of power and a number of strategies to suppress union activities.   One strategy used by employers was to bring in recent immigrants, desperate for work, to break strikes.  When employers brought in Italians to break a strike in the coal mining area around Pittsburg in 1874, 3 of the Italian replacement workers were killed.  The wealthy class benefits from economic competition between various ethnic groups. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, in the summer of 1885, whites attacked five hundred Chinese miners, killing twenty-eight of them.

“I can hire one-half of the working-class to kill the other half.”–Jay Gould, Gilded Age rail tycoon and real estate speculator


Employers of large corporations, had enormous amounts of money to influence labor disputes.  One strategy was to spend money in local and national elections to gain support from local officials who could call out state or national troops.  An example of this is the railroad strike of 1877 where one hundred people were killed.    Another strategy was for an employer to hire its own private army.  An example of this is the Homestead Strike of the Carnegie Steel Plant in 1892.  The Pinkerton detective agency was hired to protect strikebreakers and to break the union.  On the night of July 5th, 1892,  hundreds of Pinkerton guards boarded ships and made their way down the river to the plant. Gunfire broke out.  Three Pinkertons and seven strikers were killed.

haymarrketsquareIn 1886 there was a movement for an eight-hour work day.  On May 3, there was a demonstration in Chicago where police fired in a crowd of strikers, killing four.  The next day there was a demonstration at Haymarket Square in Chicago.  Approximately 3000 people gathered.  180 policemen showed up and ordered the crowd to disperse.   A bomb exploded, killing seven officers.  Police began to fire into the crowd, killing several people and wounding over two hundred.

pullmanstrikeMany workers went on strike because of dangerous work conditions. There were many occupations where workers would die on the job. On average, from 1905 through 1930, well over 2,000 U.S. miners would die every year. In the 1890’s , it is estimated that two thousand railroad workers were killed on the job each year.   The Pullman strike of 1884 in Chicago saw 3000 workers go on strike.  Four thousand strikebreakers were brought in.  Violence broke out.  There were many casualties.  12,000 federal troops were deployed (approximately half the U.S. army), on pretenses  to keep the peace, but surely to break the strike.   It is estimated that thirty-four people were killed.   The Triangle Shirtwaist Company on March 25, 1911, burned to the ground.  Because it was standard practice to lock the doors so that workers couldn’t leave,  146 workers, mostly women, were burned to death.   In 1904, it is estimated that 27,000 workers were killed on the job in manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture.  According to a report of the Commission on Industrial Relations, in 1914,  35,000 workers were killed in industrial accidents and 700,000 injured.   In 1912, in Lawrence Massachusetts, there was a strike against the American Woolen Company.  Ten thousand workers went on strike.  The strike occurred during the winter.   Because of the cold and the lack of food, strikers sent their children to other families until the strike was over.  City officials in Lawrence, declared this violated a statute on child neglect and would not allow any more children to leave.  When a group of children tried to leave from the train station, police moved in and beat with clubs parents and children.  In 1914 there was a strike by coal workers in Colorado.  When the strike began, the miners were evicted and forced to live in “tent cities”.   On April 20, 1914, National Guards soldiers began shooting on the tent city.  Twenty people were killed, including 11 children.

In 1938 John Lewis and the United Mine Workers, who were trying to unionize unskilled workers,  broke away from the AFL and formed the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations).  They rejoined in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO.

1.  The Purposeful Destruction of Worker’s Compensation Benefits

Key Labor Legislation

collectivebargainingThe Great Depression created an environment for the growth of labor unions.  In 1935 the National Labor Relations Act was passed.  This act is sometimes referred to as the Wagner Act, from its author. The Wagner Act  allowed workers to join unions and engage in collective bargaining.  Employers were forbidden from interfering with workers organizing and from penalizing employees who engaged in union activities.  This act put the force of the government on the side of unions for the first time. One of the rights won by workers was collective bargaining.  This is the process of negotiations between the union and management over wages and working conditions.  During the negotiation process, unions and management have a set of strategies that can be used to ensure that companies bargain in good faith.  Unions may threaten a strike, which is a group decision not to work.  Management might threaten a lockout, which is where the firm refuses to operate.  Management might also threaten to hire replacement workers to get an agreement in its favor.  In the collective bargaining process if the two sides can not come to an agreement, often the process moves into binding arbitration. Binding arbitration is a process where a third party, an arbitrator, determines issues such as wages and working conditions.

unionstrikeAfter World War II the Republicans captured control of Congress.  In 1947 Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act.  This piece of legislation was more favorable to business.  The Taft-Hartley Act had three main provisions.  The first gave the government the right to halt a strike by a court order if the strike would jeopardize “national health and safety”.  It allows the president to declare an 80 day cooling off period.  If an agreement can not be reached during that time frame, then the strike may resume. The second provision was that it allowed states to enact “right to work” laws, which gives states the right to restrict union shop contracts.  These right to work laws prohibit a contract that requires union membership as a condition of employment.   28 states, mostly in the South, have right to work laws.   Lastly it provided that the union or the employer must, before terminating a collective-bargaining agreement, serve notice on the other party and on a government mediation service.

1.  A Short History of American Labor

2.  Images of Child Labor

3.  Would a Right to Work Law Be Good for Wisconsin”s Economy?

4.  Appeals Court Rules Wisconsin’s Right to Work Law Constitutional

5.  The Rise and Fall of Labor Unions in the United States

Unions in the United States Today

Union membership has changed in the United States.  Currently, only 1 in 9 workers is unionized.  Many traditional jobs that had heavy union membership (factory workers, steel workers)  have declined over the years as production has moved elsewhere.  Yet, union membership in professional organizations ( teachers, government workers) has increased. Nearly 40% of public-sector workers are union members.  The largest labor union today is the National Education Association with over two million members.  The future of unions may lie in the public sector, such as state and municipal workers.  Increased deregulation since the 1980’s in industries such as airlines and trucking has forced firms to compete more intensely and to hire less expensive nonunion labor.  In addition, the downsizing trend has closed plants and eliminated jobs, making it harder to organize a union or to win concessions.

From 2010 until the present there have been both legislative acts and court decisions that have negatively impacted the ability for unions to exist. In 2011 in the state of Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker signed  a piece of legislation titled “Act 10” which removed collective bargaining rights for most public sector employees. Other states such as Iowa and Michigan have passed similar laws.

1. 2017 Report on the Impact of Act 10

In June of 2018 the Supreme Court ruled in the Janus v. AFSCME case to end a 40 year old precedent of allowing public sector unions to charge dues to non-union members who benefit from collective bargaining agreements. Workers are required to pay “fair-share” fees, even if they decline to join the union, because they still benefit from the union’s bargaining activities. Nonmember workers are not required to contribute to a union’s political lobbying activities or backing of political candidates. The Supreme Court ruled that such arrangements were unfair to non-union members because they “violate the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion. The ruling is expected to deal a significant blow to unions and see their numbers decrease because workers will be able to opt out of paying dues while still receiving benefits (free riding).

1.  Steven Colbert and the Removal of Labor Murals in Maine



Are Workers Better Off With Labor Unions?

Lawrence Mishel  at the Economic Policy Institute has produced a study documenting the union impact on wages and benefits in  The State of Working America.  For all workers in the United States, the union wage premium in 2011 was 13.6%. That is, on average, union members earn this much more than their nonunion counterparts. The comparison is made especially significant since it holds the following wage-determining factors constant: experience, education, region, industry, occupation, race/ethnicity, and marital status. This means that if we compare those with the same education, race, occupation, etc., union workers still make more money. We get similar results if we look at benefits. Union employees are more likely to have employer-financed health insurance (28.2%), pensions (53.9%), and time off (14.3%). Union benefits are also better. For example, union workers have lower deductibles and co-payments in their healthcare plans and are much more likely to be covered when they retire. They are more likely to have defined benefits pensions.2

Some argue there are economic costs to unions ( loss of productivity, retention of poor workers). The Employment Policy Foundation (EPF) stated that a unionized company’s output per employee would be 2.4 percent less than a union-free competitor, if that unionized company experienced just a .25 percent reduction in productivity. Their conclusion was that unless the unionized company could sell their product at a higher price or other cost savings could be attained, the unionized company is likely to see 14 percent less in profits per labor hour than their non-union competitor.3

Whatever your feelings are towards unions, they have bought benefits to all workers, union and non-union alike.  How can this be true?  Because today non-union companies offer many of the same benefits as union companies, even though they don’t have to.  Nonunion firms do this because they are competing for labor.  They don’t wish to lose productive employees to a union firm, so they try to offer the same benefits as union firms.

How does union membership in the United States compare with union membership in other leading economies?  The graph below shows that the United States has one of the least unionized workforces in the world.

1.  International Trade Union Membership Rates by Country


Union Objectives and Goals

Since the labor movement began, unions have tried to win benefits for their workers.  Over the years, their struggle has produced the following benefits:  1) shorter work week, 2) time and a half for overtime pay, ) 3)  safer workplaces, 4)  health insurance, 5) retirement benefits, 6) paid vacations, and 7) a minimum wage. What the preceding list provides are benefits won by unions in the past.

unionmadeUnions have goals for their workers.  One goal is to decrease the supply of labor.  This is done through certifications, apprenticeships, reduced immigration, and professional organizations.  This has the affect of raising the wage rate, but decreasing the number of jobs available.  Because of this, unions also try to increase the demand for union labor. They try to increase the demand for labor, through things like the “Look for the Union Label” campaign.  It is hoped that this would increase demand for union made products.  They may also encourage restrictions on imports, push for minimum wage laws, and support immigration restrictions.    A third goal is to increase wages, usually done through collective bargaining. What has been described in this paragraph are goals that unions seek to maintain in the present.

1.  Connection Between Higher Healthcare Costs and Lower Wages

2.  Worker Retirement Theft in Four Despicable Steps

3.  Public Pensions Fact Sheet

4.  The Move Away From Defined Benefit Plans

5.  Overworked America



The Minimum Wage Rate Debate

In 1938 Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act which called for the establishment of a 25 cent an hour minimum wage.  Since then the minimum wage has been raised, but not enough to keep pace with inflation. Some states have enacted minimum wages of their own that exceed the federal minimum.  There are some economists who believe that minimum wage laws hurt the very people they are intended to help.  These economists believe that minimum wage laws create a surplus of workers, especially amongst teenagers and the poor- those who need the help the most.  The argument here is that if there is no government involvement there will exist a market equilibrium wage rate.  For example, if no minimum wage exists, the market might pay low skilled workers $4 per hour. At that rate there would be 6 million workers.  If however, a minimum wage is enacted at $6 per hour, there will only be 5 million workers.  So there exists a trade-off between an increase in wages and an increase in unemployment.

On the other side, our economists who believe the minimum wage law was put into effect to abolish sweatshop wage levels.  If the current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, is there anyone whose work is worth less than that?  Can anyone in the United States live on our minimum wage?  Is lowering the minimum wage just another excuse to pay workers less?  Another argument that a raise in the minimum wage is good for workers is that it increases labor productivity.  By raising the incomes of workers, a minimum wage may inspire them to become more productive.  In 1914 when Henry Ford raised the wages of his employees from $2.50 per day to $5 per day, there was a sharp decline in workers quitting their jobs and absenteeism. This resulted in productivity gains that outpaced the increase in wages. Economists also raise the concept of price elasticity.  Think about gasoline and how it is an inelastic good.  The price has gone up over the past few years considerably, but people still have to fill up their cars to get to work.  Many economists think that minimum wage types of jobs are also price inelastic.

So where does this leave us?  There is some evidence that increases in the minimum wage do cause people to lose jobs, especially among the unskilled.  But the last minimum wage increase in 1996 saw employment actually go up slightly.  Some economists say that because unemployment did not rise that the long held economic belief that unemployment always goes up when there is a raise in the minimum wage is no longer true.  Other economists say that the reason the unemployment rate didn’t go up was due to differences in regional economic growth, not to changes in the minimum wage. So what would the father of economics have to say?  In his book “The Wealth of Nations” he said,  ” A man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him.  They must, even upon most occasions, be somewhat more; otherwise it would be impossible for him to bring up a family, and the race of workers would not last beyond the generation.”2

The chart below shows the unemployment rate for the year when the minimum wage was raised and the unemployment rate for the following year.  Is there a correlation between the two as most economists believe?

The minimum wage will increase to $10.25 an hour on January 1, 2018, for federal contractors ($7.25 for tipped employees). This is part of a scheduled increase put in effect in 2015 by Executive Order 13658.

Date when minimum wage was raised Wage Rate Unemployment rate for year enacted Unemployment Rate the following year
Jan. 25, 1950 from $0.40 to $0.75 5.3 3.3
March 1, 1956 $1.00 4.1 4.3
Sept. 3, 1961 $1.15 6.7 5.5
Sept.3, 1963 $1.25 5.7 5.2
Feb. 1, 1967 $1.40 3.8 3.6
Feb. 1, 1968 $1.60 3.6 3.5
May 1, 1974 $2.00 5.6 8.5
Jan. 1, 1975 $2.10 8.5 7.7
Jan. 1, 1976 $2.30 7.7 7.1
Jan. 1, 1978 $2.65 6.1 5.8
Jan. 1, 1979 $2.90 5.8 7.1
Jan. 1, 1980 $3.10 7.1 7.6
Jan. 1, 1981 $3.35 7.6 9.7
April 1, 1990 $3.80 5.6 6.8
April 1, 1991 $4.25 6.8 7.5
Oct. 1, 1996 $4.75 5.4 4.9
Sept. 1, 1997 $5.15 4.9 4.5
July 24, 2007 $5.85 4.6 5.8
July 24, 2008 $6.55 5.8 9.3
July 24, 2009 $7.25 9.3 9.6

Source:  U.S. Department of Labor:  http://www.dol.gov/esa/minwage/chart.htm and http://data.bls.gov/PDQ/servlet/SurveyOutputServlet?data_tool=latest_numbers&series_id=LNU04000000&years_


1.  Impact on Employment When Cities Raised the Minimum Wage  (Chart like the one above)

2.  How the New Minimum Wage Will Affect State Minimum Wages

3.  Graph Showing the Declining Value of the Minimum Wage

4.  What Would the Minimum Wage Be If It Kept Up With Inflation?

5.  Most Minimum Wage Workers Are Not Teenagers

6.  Increasing Minimum Wage Can Create Jobs

7.  Average Age of Minimum Wage Worker Is…

8.  Do Minimum Wages Kill Jobs?


Along with safety, wages is one of the most important components in a worker’s life. How have worker’s wages fared with new changes in the American economy and to the economic decline of the past decade?  The research indicates not well. According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, the failure of the economy to provide a living wage to a majority of its workers has created a decade of stagnation. The main problem is that workers have not seen wage increases to match their productivity increases. While wages are stagnant or declining for most workers, corporate profits are at all time highs.

The Economic Policy Institute’s paper’s  key findings include:

  • According to every major data source, the vast majority of U.S. workers—including white-collar and blue-collar workers and those with and without a college degree—have endured more than a decade of wage stagnation. Wage growth has significantly underperformed productivity growth regardless of occupation, gender, race/ethnicity, or education level.
  • During the Great Recession and its aftermath (i.e., between 2007 and 2012), wages fell for the entire bottom 70 percent of the wage distribution, despite productivity growth of 7.7 percent.
  • Weak wage growth predates the Great Recession. Between 2000 and 2007, the median worker saw wage growth of just 2.6 percent, despite productivity growth of 16.0 percent, while the 20th percentile worker saw wage growth of just 1.0 percent and the 80th percentile worker saw wage growth of just 4.6 percent.
  • The weak wage growth over 2000–2007, combined with the wage losses for most workers from 2007 to 2012, mean that between 2000 and 2012, wages were flat or declined for the entire bottom 60 percent of the wage distribution (despite productivity growing by nearly 25 percent over this period).
  • Wage growth in the very early part of the 2000–2012 period, between 2000 and 2002, was still being bolstered by momentum from the strong wage growth of the late 1990s. Between 2002 and 2012, wages were stagnant or declined for the entire bottom 70 percent of the wage distribution. In other words, the vast majority of wage earners have already experienced a lost decade, one where real wages were either flat or in decline.
  • This lost decade for wages comes on the heels of decades of inadequate wage growth. For virtually the entire period since 1979 (with the one exception being the strong wage growth of the late 1990s), wage growth for most workers has been weak. The median worker saw an increase of just 5.0 percent between 1979 and 2012, despite productivity growth of 74.5 percent—while the 20th percentile worker saw wage erosion of 0.4 percent and the 80th percentile worker saw wage growth of just 17.5 percent.




According to a 2016 report by the Social Security Administration, in 2015 50 percent of all American workers made less than $30,533, and 39 percent of all American workers made less than $20,000.  If you worked a full-time job at $10 an hour all year long with two weeks off, you would make $20,000. Median pay in 2015 was just $30,533.31.  That means that 50 percent of American workers made less than that number, and 50 percent of American workers made more than that number. Average pay for 2015 was $46,640.   After adjusting for inflation, wages are only 10 percent higher in 2017 than they were in 1973, with annual real wage growth just below 0.2 percent.  Flat or declining average pay is a major reason so many Americans feel that the Great Recession never ended for them. A severe job shortage compounds that misery not just for workers but also for businesses trying to profit from selling goods and services.  Our politicians have stood by as millions upon millions of good paying jobs have been shipped out of the country.  Millions of other middle class jobs have been lost to technology.  This has resulted in intense competition for the middle class jobs that remain, which has had the affect of driving down wages.

According to a new study by the Russell Sage Foundation, the inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36% decline.  After reaching a peak of 52 percent in 1969, the percentage of the U.S. gross domestic product going to wages has fallen to 43 percent, according to research by the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve. The amount of GDP going to wages according to a 2013 New York Times report has been the lowest it has been since 1929 .  An Economic Policy Institute study noted, that “From 2000 to 2017, wage growth was strongest for the highest-wage workers, continuing the trend in rising wage inequality over the last four decades.” The strongest wage growth was for those in the top 10 percent of earnings. Not only have politicians not done much to increase wages for workers, but neither has the Federal Reserve. The U.S. Federal Reserve issued a report in 2015 declaring the problem of economic weakness is due to wages not falling enough!

1.  2014 Continues a 35 Year Trend of Wage Stagnation

2.  Workers Forced to Train Their Replacements for Cheaper H-1b Visa Workers (60 Minutes)

3.  If the Economy Keeps Improving, Then How Come Wages Haven’t Gone Up?

4.  Wages Increase For Bottom 90% of Workers From 2015 – 2016

5.  Proposed Rule Change Would Allow Employers to Pocket Billions in Worker’s Tips


The Connection Between the Stock Market Decline and Wages

On Monday, February 5, 2018 the Dow Jones Industrial Average ( a stock market measurement) declined 1175 points, its largest one day decline in history. Why did a major stock market index see such a large decline?  The message coming from investors is that American workers wages have increased, triggered by a report the previous Friday that workers wages increased  2.9% from the previous year which translates to a 9 cent per hour increase.  The wage increase by itself was not enough to cause the panic. Investors are worried that wage increases will lead to an increase in the inflation rate.  Investors fear that the Federal Reserve will respond by raising interest rates, which will make it more expensive for  investors, corporations, and banks to borrow money.

Most Americans are unaware of the dynamic described above. They believe wealthy investors have the average American’s best interests in mind when they make investment decisions. But the reality is the opposite.  Wage increases by workers are seen as a bad sign for the economy.  Wealthy investors and management have long known that lower wages for workers means more profits for them.  In other words, when workers win investors and management loses. Under our current economic system, small wage gains by workers are seen as an obstacle to profits for the wealthy and conversely, the continued decline of living standards for workers is seen as a sign of a healthy economy.

Suppressing workers’ wages is not the only way to improve the value of a companies stock. The next topic to be discussed below (unemployment) is another area where the value of stocks (and by extension the profits of wealthy investors) frequently increase when companies announce the layoffs of large number of workers. Visit the following link on the connection between layoffs and stock prices to learn more.


unemployedpersonOur country experienced double digit unemployment rates during the Great Depression.  Since then, our government has made it a priority to focus on how to keep the unemployment rate down.  That means to promote long term economic growth, we first have to fix any short term unemployment problems.  To achieve economic growth, governments focus on a number of economic indicators including unemployment. The unemployment situation focuses on the number of workers in the labor force.  Unemployment results in hardships for individuals and families.  Besides imposing a cost on individuals, unemployment also is a burden for an economy.  Fewer goods and services are produced.  When the economy does not provide enough jobs to individuals who are seeking work, the productivity of that unemployed labor is lost.  Finally, during periods of unemployment, governments increase social spending, such as unemployment compensation.

The Labor Force

The United States labor force consists of anyone who is 16 years or older, not in an institution, and is working.  The Civilian labor force is the labor force minus the military.  In economic terms, unemployment then refers to idle labor.

1.  Bureau of Labor Statistics:  Labor Force Participation Rate


The Unemployment Rate


To be counted in the unemployment rate, a person must be at least 16 years of age and without work, but actively looking for a job.  The unemployment rate then, is the ratio of the number of unemployed persons to the number of persons in the labor force.  For example, if there are 128 million people in the labor force, and their are 8.7 million people unemployed, then the unemployment rate would be 6.8 percent.

Unemployment rate =        number of unemployed            8.7 million   =    6.8%

labor force                                128 million

1. Everything About the Unemployment Rate From the Bureau of Labor Statistics


Types of Unemployment

There are four main types of unemployment.  Of the four, structural and cyclical are of the most concern to economists and government officials.

Frictional Unemployment.  Temporary unemployment due to imperfections in the labor market.  It occurs when people are in between jobs or just entering or reentering the labor force.  Frictional unemployment is brief.  It takes time to post a position,  go through the interview process, and then to finally get a person to the business to work.  At any given time, 2 – 3 percent of the labor force is frictionally unemployed.  Examples of frictional unemployed workers include those who get fired, quit, or are looking for new jobs, students, homemakers reentering the labor force, and servicemen and women who have recently been discharged from the armed services.

Structural Unemployment.  Long term unemployment due to changes in the structure of the economy.  Demand for some kinds of goods gives way to demand for other types of goods.  For example, telegraph operators have lost their jobs to technology.  Other reasons that contribute to structural unemployment include: 1)  workers lacking required skills, 2) unable to move out of depressed areas, 3)  displaced because of changing technology, 4) discrimination, and 5) employers laying off workers because the cost exceeds the return. The affect of structural unemployment in an economy is sometimes hard to measure.  If a worker loses a high paying job, say at $15 per hour, and gets rehired at say $7 an hour, statistically this worker shows up as employed.  But such a statistic is misleading.  That worker will have to adjust his/her living standards accordingly.  If this is happening to tens of thousands of workers simultaneously, then the country’s living standard is decreasing.

umeployment2Cyclical Unemployment. Caused by a downward swing in the business cycle.  It affects workers in many different industries simultaneously, and is usually accompanies a recession or depression.  As income drops, spending drops, which eventually leads to workers being laid off.  The government tries to avoid  cyclical unemployment through the promotion of growth and efficiency.

Seasonal Unemployment.  In our society, at any given time, there are thousands of people out of work because it is the “slow season”.   There is a “tourist season” and a “harvest season”.  When the season is over,  the workers may collect unemployment benefits or remain out of the workforce until the new season begins.

Full Employment. Full employment refers to when an economy operates at an unemployment rate equal to the sum of frictional and structural unemployment rates, which most economists consider essentially unavoidable.  The definition of full employment has changed over the years.  It has increased.  It used to be 3%.  Now it ranges between 4 and 5 % depending on the economist or the current administration.  It is another way of underestimating the impact of unemployment.

1.  The “New Normal” for Unemployment?


Limitations of Using the Unemployment Rate as a Measuring Tool

There are a number of problems with using the unemployment rate as a method to assessing our economy.  First, the unemployment rate can sometimes overstate the number of people unemployed.  Some people who claim to be unemployed and actively looking for work may not be actively looking. a person might claim to be actively looking for a job to remain eligible for government payments to the unemployed.  In this case, a person who is actually not in the labor force is counted as unemployed. Other people might be engaged in illegal activity, such as drug dealing, or want to conceal a legitimate job to avoid paying taxes.  The opposite can also be true.  Sometimes there is understating of the number of people unemployed.  For example, discouraged workers, those workers who would like to have a job but have given up looking, are not counted as unemployed because they are not included in the labor force.  Where are these discouraged workers?  They are in depressed rural areas and in our nation’s largest cities.  If you visit these places during the day you will find many teenagers and adults standing around with nothing to do.   From a statistical point of view, these people are not considered unemployed.  It is as if they are not part of our economy.  To be counted as unemployed by the Bureau of Labor, you have to be looking for work. A third problem is that the official unemployment rate includes part-time workers as fully employed.  A fourth problem is dealing with underemployed.  These are workers who are working at jobs that they are overqualified for.  The traditional person with a Ph.D driving a taxi cab is an example.  The economy does not benefit from the full range of their skills.

1. 94 percent of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements (part-time, temporary)

To sum up, the U3 measure of unemployment only measures unemployment among those who are actively seeking a job. Those who have become discouraged by the inability to find a job and have ceased looking are not counted as being among the unemployed, and the U3 measure makes no adjustment for those who are forced into part-time jobs because there is no full-time employment.

The government knows that the U3 “headline” unemployment rate is seriously understated and provides a broader measure known as U6. This measure, which is seldom reported by the financial media, includes short-term discouraged workers (those who have not looked for jobs for six months or less) and an adjustment for those who wish full time employment but can only find part time work.

Add long-term discouraged workers. No official unemployment rate includes long-term (more than six months) discouraged workers as unemployed.

John Williams from shadowstats.com estimates this number and adds it to the U6 measure to produce a  rate of US unemployment of 21.7 per cent (March  2018), an unemployment rate 5 times higher than the official rate. John Williams also believes there are problems with the Bureau of Labor Statistics seasonal adjustments and “birth-death” model where the BLS overestimates new jobs and underestimates lost jobs. Seasonal adjustments and the “birth-death” model were designed with a growing economy in mind and result in miscounts during downturns. For example, the “birth-death” model estimates new jobs that are created from new start-up companies that are not yet reporting, and it estimates the job losses from companies that have gone out of business. In a growing economy, start-ups exceed jobs losses, but the situation reverses during downturns or during periods of sub-normal job growth.  To sum up, when the unemployment rate goes down because people found jobs that is a good thing.  When the unemployment rate goes down because people have given up looking for work, that is a bad thing.

An Alternative Perspective on Unemployment

What has been explained above is the textbook definition and the traits and features of unemployment that can be found in most economic textbooks.  But what does “unemployment” mean to individual workers? How does unemployment come to exist?   Unemployment is an indicator of the enormous increase in the productivity of labor. More and more products are generated with fewer and fewer people. Millions are not needed because the workers who are still needed are so productive that everything the employers want to have produced at a profit has already been produced. In other words: people are unemployed, made “redundant,” because of abundance. The means to produce wealth have become so highly developed that society needs less and less workers.  Productivity advances throw millions of people out of work and  into destitution. By using workers more efficiently and more intensely, employers cut down on their costs – and that is what workers are for them, costs to be reduced and minimized.  In our modern economy, productivity increases mean that more is produced for the companies with cheaper labor. When this happens,  their wealth grows. On the other side, the poverty of those who are no longer needed grows.

So as more workers lose their jobs, a transformation occurs on how to view unemployed workers. What begins as a concern for the plight of the unemployed ends as a concern for profit and the health of the economy. What begins as a show of sympathy for the hardships of the unemployed turns into a criticism of the burden that the unemployed put on the state and its budget. What begins as the self-criticism of the government, that it has not done enough to provide workers with opportunities, ends as a criticism of the unemployed (keywords: “skills shortage” or “education gap”). The unemployed workers themselves are blamed for their lack of work. No discussion is allowed on how the economic system (capitalism) might be responsible for persistent unemployment.

Because of the manipulation of the official unemployment rate, many people are suggesting that the Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate is a more reliable statistic for measuring unemployment. According to the Household Survey Report of April 2018, 164,000 people found jobs. What is more disturbing is that the people not in the labor force, rose to a new record high, increasing by 410,000 to 95.5 million.   The official unemployment rate for April 2018  fell from 4.1% to 3.9%.  The official Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate also fell from 62.9% to 62.8%.  How can that be?  This is explained because more people have given up looking for work and no longer fall on the Bureau of Economic Statistics radar. What are some reasons people have given up looking for work?  Economists cite a number of reasons from aging baby boomers leaving the workforce and retiring, to people in school or receiving training, to people taking care of a loved one, to the opioid epidemic, to an increase in the number of people who consider themselves disabled (The portion of working-age adults who say they’re not in the labor force because of a disability rose from 4.2% in 1995 to 6.1% in 2017, according to government data analyzed by the Conference Board.)  A question that is perplexing economists and others is if the unemployment rate is at historical lows, why haven’t wages increased?

1.  Alternative Measure of Labor Utilization for the Bureau of Labor (U-6)

2.  Shadow Stats

3.  Koehler Seeks Two Tier Wage System to be More “Flexible”

4.  Unemployed and Suicide Rates

5.  History of Economic Statistics Being Manipulated

6.   Lower the Unemployment Rate by Cutting the Work Week

7.  The Real Story Behind Job Creation

8.  65 Million Americans With Criminal Records Face Employment Barriers

9.   Why America’s Men Aren’t Working (Mancession)

10.  Unemployment Rate Higher for Vets

11.  Stephen Colbert on How the Unemployed Are Competing With Cheap Prison Labor

12.  10 Perspectives on the Slow, Agonizing Death of the American Worker

13.   The Expendables:  The Rise of the Use of Temp Workers

14.  Problems With Latest Jobs Report   Link 1    Link 2

15.  Labor Force Participation Rate- Best Economic Indicator?

16.  Charts Showing Labor Participation Rates for Elderly Workers Which Explains Why Young People Can’t Find Jobs

17.  The Magical Shrinking Unemployment Rate

18.  Federal Reserve Admits Bureau of Labor Statistics is Meaningless



   actionMovies Relevant to This Unit

Below are a list of movies that exhibit economic concepts learned in this unit.


1.  Inequality for All  by Robert Reich   A documentary that follows former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich as he looks to raise awareness of the country’s widening economic gap.

2.  Elysium.  In the year 2154, the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth.


books03 Books Relevant to This Unit

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.





Parkin, Michael      2000  Economics (5th Edition)  New York:   Addison- Wesley

Slavin, Stephen L.      1999   Economics  (5th Edition)   New York:   Irwin McGraw-Hill

Taylor, John B.

2001 Economics.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company

Tregarthen, Timothy.

2000 Economics (2nd Edition) New York:  Worth Publishers

Tucker, Irvin B.         1995  Survey of Economics   New York:  West Publishing Company

1 Lawrence Mishel and Matthew Walters, “The State of Working America”.  Economic Policy Institute

2  Lawrence Mishel and Matthew Walters, “The State of Working America”.  Economic Policy Institute

3 Employment Policy Foundation, “Financial Outcomes in Union and Non-Union Workplaces,” Issue Backgrounder, March 14, 2003


2 Smith, Adam   “The Wealth of Nations”  page 95

Copyright ©2007, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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