Workers Must Benefit Too

Workers Must Benefit Too

I am a glass half full kind of person. As volatile as our economy is, I try to be optimistic, yet still realistic. And, with our COVID-economy in transition, I see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially for our workforce here in Virginia, even though it is unclear whether we are headed towards a recession in an attempt by the Federal Reserve to curb inflation with sharp interest rate hikes. So, even though the world may feel more chaotic than ever, I am determined to stay positive, and you should too, because we live in a wonderful community in the greatest nation on earth, where it is still possible to live the American middle-class dream. Yes, we have war in Ukraine, gas topping $5 a gallon, and volatility in the financial markets. But the Ukrainians are persevering under tremendous odds, and with help from the West, gas prices have been dropping every day for well over a month, and the stock market is stabilizing. Most significantly, the labor market is tightening, and workers have the opportunity to flex their muscles by organizing to up their pay, improve their working conditions, and increase safety on the job. Moreover, during the 2022 session of the General Assembly earlier this year, we won the legislative fight to protect the good labor reform laws we passed in the sessions of 2020 and 2021 from getting repealed or watered down. For example, the minimum wage is still going up (In fact, this week marked the anniversary of when the federal minimum wage was last raised to $7.25, which was too long ago - 2009) from its current $11 an hour to $12 an hour next January 1st. Even more important for worker empowerment is that this week saw the Richmond City Council join our Northern Virginia jurisdictions (as already has occurred here in Fairfax County) to vote for providing its employees with the power to collectively bargain. I am also encouraged that Northern Virginia localities are passing ordinances requiring prevailing wages for construction workers and piloting Project Labor Agreements for our public works.

Indeed, we are amid a national labor resurgence. After decades of declining union membership, labor organizing is on the upswing. The reasons why are many, but it looks like workers are finally in a position to benefit. It’s not that workers have not wanted better working conditions, higher wages, and better benefits before. But now you are seeing young people, especially, taking jobs to organize workers, like Starbucks’ baristas are doing at over 250 locations across the country. Union representation petitions (to have the NLRB conduct an election to determine if the workers wish to be represented by a union) filed this fiscal year are up 58 percent, already far beyond the number from last year. In May, nationally, there were more than 11 million job openings – 4.5 million more than before the pandemic. Currently, robust hiring is broad-based across all sectors of the economy.

Meanwhile, here in Virginia, we have a strong labor market, which has produced 61,000 jobs in the first three months since January, driving strong growth in payroll withholding to give our state budget a surplus. There were 113,000 more Virginians employed in April 2022 than there were in April 2021, an increase of 2.7 percent year-over-year. Payroll employment was estimated to have grown 3.2 percent in April versus the prior year. While Virginia has underperformed the nation in jobs recovered since the pandemic, ranking 47th overall, momentum is building. For the first four months of this year, Virginia ranked 16th among the states for employment growth.

The outlook for continued job growth is positive as more Virginians are returning to the workforce. After falling much more than the nation during the pandemic, Virginia’s labor force participation rate has increased 0.9 percentage points since December. In Virginia, payroll employment rose 3.2 percent in April from April of last year. Employment in Northern Virginia rose by 3.0 percent, Hampton Roads rose 1.8 percent, and Richmond-Petersburg rose 2.1 percent. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was unchanged at 3.0 percent and stands at 1.3 percentage points less than a year ago. (All statistics are from the Secretary of Finance’s May revenue report.)

So, it’s no coincidence that we’re seeing waves of support for unions. While companies are posting record profits, workers in essential industries have not seen their wages keep pace with inflation. According to the AFL-CIO's Executive Paywatch Report, in 2021 real wages for workers fell by 2.4%, while CEO pay rose by 18.2%. Labor unions give workers the opportunity to come together and bargain for wages and benefits that are fair for workers. The public knows that union members were at work during the worst of COVID, keeping our economy from tanking and dedicated to getting the job done. The bottom line is that this economy is giving workers a chance to balance the power dynamic between them and their employers by organizing and sharing with businesses their financial success. And this progress is long overdue.