This Labor Day, while there are many good signs for S.C. workers, there are some points of concern.
3.9% South Carolina’s jobless rate in July 2017, down from 11.7 percent in July 2009 in the wake of the Great Recession
#1. Record low unemployment
The most recent jobless numbers show only 3.9 percent of S.C. workers ae unemployed. That is the lowest unemployment number in almost 17 years. It also is lower than the national jobless rate of 4.3 percent.
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The jobless number has been going down since hitting a high of 11.7 percent in January 2010 in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The last time unemployment in South Carolina was this low was November 2000, when it was 3.8 percent.
#2. But fewer South Carolinians working
Other numbers show signs of trouble for S.C. workers.
The labor participation rate in South Carolina, for example, has been trending down for years.
58.8% of S.C. residents were in the workforce in July 2017, down from 63 percent before the Great Recession
Only 58.8 percent of the state’s population was engaged in the workforce in July, down from 63 percent in June 2007, before the recession hit.
The rest of the state’s population – retirees, full-time students, homemakers or others – is on the economic sidelines, either not interested in working or looking for job right now. However, that number doubtless includes many who have given up looking for work.
Nationwide, the labor participation rate – the percentage of the population that either is working or actively seeking work – has recovered better to 62.9 percent, still down from 66.4 percent before the recession.
#3. Record low unionization level
1.6% of S.C. workers were in a union in 2016, the lowest unionization rate in the nation
Last year, only 1.6 percent of S.C. workers, or 32,000, belonged to a union. That’s the lowest union membership rate in the country, even lower than other union-averse Southern states. North Carolina’s unionization rate last year was 3 percent; Georgia’s is 3.9 percent.
Earlier this year, workers at the Boeing plant in North Charleston voted against joining the International Association of Machinists. Of 2,800 workers, 74 percent voted against joining the union.
“Everybody I talked to about that was shocked,” said Joseph Seiner, a professor of labor and employment law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. “The IAM is one of the biggest unions. ... They don’t take a vote unless they think they can win.”
Nationally, the number of unionized workers is trending down – at 10.7 percent, just about 1 in 10 workers. Twenty-seven states are below that average, while 23 are above it.
New York has the highest unionization rate at 23.6 percent, followed by Hawaii at 19.9 and Alaska at 18.5.
#4. Individual workers ‘becoming more powerful’
USC’s Seiner isn’t surprised by the decline in union membership.
“A lot of the protections workers used to get from unions they can now have without the union,” he said. “A lot of the rules on unsafe working conditions, child labor, those are now federal law.”
Lower union numbers also could be a plus for South Carolina’s economy. Boeing and vehicle makers – BMW, Volvo, Daimler vans and, now, potentially a Mazda/Toyota joint venture – have been attracted to the state in part because of the low level of unionization.
In fact, the current success of the state’s workforce could breed more success for individual employees.
“Because unemployment is so low, the workforce is becoming more powerful,” USC’s Seiner said. “The formal mechanisms might be more difficult, but there are a lot more informal mechanisms out there.”
#5. Courts eroding workers’ rights?
But that doesn’t necessarily mean all is well in the workplace.
Seiner argues that in many ways, the workplace has become more difficult for employees in recent years as workers’ rights slowly have eroded.
Seiner’s recently published book, “The Supreme Court’s New Workplace,” lays the blame for 21st century workplace conditions on a string of Supreme Court rulings that limited workers’ ability to sue their employers for discrimination or labor law violations.
“The (Chief Justice John) Roberts court has made it more difficult for workers just to get in the door” to file a suit by limiting access to employment records and the ability to bring class-action lawsuits on behalf of multiple employees.
“I would expect that to increase during the current administration,” Seiner said.