Labor Market Shrugs Off Strikes, But the Blade Runner Economy Isn’t Here Yet

Tight labor markets mean good conditions for bargaining, but also possibly more automation

The October 2019 jobs report just released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows a larger increase in net employment growth than anticipated. Some 128,000 jobs were added to the economy last month, compared the surveys of economists that expected the number to be around 85,000. Meanwhile, the job growth estimates for August and September were revised substantially upward by 51,000 and 44,000, bringing the three-month average net employment increase to a very healthy 176,000 jobs per month.

The low expectations for October’s jobs report were attributable to the recently-settled 40 day strike at General Motors by over 40,000 United Auto Workers members, which accounted for over 95 percent of striking workers in the BLS’s strike report. In fact, the strength of the labor market, in the midst of its longest era of continuous expansion on record, has motivated many unions to take advantage of bargaining power afforded by high labor demand combined with low unemployment rates to pressure employers for greater compensation. The number of workers who engaged in work stoppages during 2018 surged to levels not seen since the 1980s, although similar peaks were seen at the end of economic expansions during the 1990s and 2000s.

However, the tightening of the labor market that grants unions greater ability to bargain for increased compensation tends to sow the seeds that later reduce their employers’ demand for labor. The rising cost of employment pushes companies to find less-costly means of production, which can mean shifting operations to lower-wage regions (seen in the way that US manufacturing has gradually moved from the Rust Belt to Southern states) and toward increasing automation (which has been a steady trend in US manufacturing over recent decades).

In fact, the manufacturing industry’s share of employment in US has been steadily declining since the late 1940s. This mirrors how agriculture’s share of employment fell from 41 percent in 1900 to less than two percent in 2000, even as production substantially increased, which was mostly attributable to automation and improvements in crop science. Academic research suggests that international trade has siphoned away some of the manufacturing jobs in the US, but the scale of the trade-related decrease is small compared to the overall churn in the labor market.   

The onset of the computer era has made it ever more clear that workers need to upgrade their job skills regularly to adapt to the new jobs being created. The future may not have arrived as quickly as science fiction suggested (Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was set in November 2019!), but it’s definitely changed the way we work.

Quick Statistics from the October 2019 BLS Jobs Report

Headline Employment Statistics

  • Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 128,000 jobs.
  • The labor force participation rate increased by 0.1 percentage points to 63.3 percent.
  • The headline unemployment rate (U-3) rose slightly by 0.1 percentage points to 3.6 percent.

Other Unemployment Rates

  • The mid- to long-term unemployment rate (15 weeks or longer; U-1) held steady at 1.3 percent.
  • The discouraged worker unemployment rate (U-4) increased by 0.1 percentage points to 3.8 percent.
  • The comprehensive jobless rate (U-5b) held steady at 6.3 percent.

Deeper Unemployment Statistics

  • The number of unemployed workers increased by 86,000 to 5.9 million.
  • The number of people who say they want a job but were not actively seeking work fell by 127,000 to 4.8 million.
  • Short-term unemployed workers (under 15 weeks) increased by 68,000 to 3.7 million, accounting for 63.2 percent of those who are unemployed.
  • Long-term unemployed workers (27 weeks or longer) fell by 50,000 to 1.3 million, accounting for 21.5 percent of those who are unemployed.

Full-Time vs. Part-Time Employment Statistics

  • The unemployment rate for those specifically seeking full-time work increased by 0.1 percentage points to 3.5 percent.
  • The unemployment rate for those specifically seeking part-time work fell by 0.1 percentage points to 3.8 percent.
  • The number of people who wanted to work full time, but who could only find part-time work for economic reasons, increased by 88,000 to 4.4 million. The part-time workers who wanted full-time employment constituted 17.1 percent of all part-time workers.


  • Average hourly earnings (for all private, nonfarm employees) rose by 3.0 percent over the previous 12 months.
  • Average weekly earnings (for all private, nonfarm employees) rose by 2.7 percent over the previous 12 months.

Photo by Chris Winters