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Rising Tide Finally Floats Workers

By James L. TysonStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / November 10, 1997



BALTIMORE

It's early morning at the Port of Baltimore.

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Sunlight shimmers on the Patapsco River; black ships as long as upended skyscrapers slide up against the waterfront, their horns moaning. Crane winches hum, swinging 20-ton boxes; steel thunders against steel.

This morning, it's more than just the colossal sounds and sights of the port that make Richie Hughes feel big. He's making good money, with good prospects for job security.

After three decades in which their ranks collapsed by more than 60 percent, longshoremen, like their blue-collar colleagues across the country, are on the comeback.

The full-throttle economy deserves much of the credit but so do two once-hostile forces, now become allies.

Freer trade and new technology have moved into the blue-collar corner.

Most of America's 32 million blue-collar workers, in fact, are halting their long, forced retreat in pay and jobs.

"Wages are great - we're up to $23 an hour - and in terms of jobs, we're solid," says Mr. Hughes, head of International Longshoremen's Association Local 953.

American labor is exploding conventional wisdom of an inevitable decline. Half of all job openings between 1994 and 2005 will be either blue-collar or low-skill, white-collar jobs, according to a study by the Hudson Institute.

Call it the bleaching of America's blue collar: Labor is seizing on new innovations and skills as higher education increasingly fetches higher pay. Brains carry more clout than brawn.

Today's craftsmen and factory workers are far more likely to have spent some time in college than those a decade ago.

They still work with their hands but are more likely to reach for high tech than a toolbox - to fix a copier or wire up a modem than assemble something.

"There is a new, well-paid blue collar worker, one who has found his way into services," says Mark Niemira, an economist at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York.

That's good news for most working Americans. Blue-collar labor has long signaled trends for the entire work force.

Also, traditional labor generates a slew of supporting jobs, ranging from finance and health care to retailing and public services.

Widening pay gap

But not everyone who carries a lunchbucket is winning. Although technology and trade now benefit trained workers, the two forces still imperil the wages and jobs of the less-skilled. The split is part of the wide skill gap dividing the entire US work force.

Households in the lowest fifth of the income scale last year saw their incomes stagnate while the top fifth took a record high 49 percent of all earnings, according to the Census Bureau.

The widening inequality helps explain why real median income, while rising in the past two years, still remains below its 1989 peak.

Blue-collar workers as a group have made slight gains in compensation in recent years. But the payoff differs widely according to education and high-tech savvy.

Highly skilled workers are prospering the most. Unskilled workers are gaining a bit, but largely because of a minimum-wage hike and labor shortages. Semiskilled workers take home stagnant incomes.

"What's most salient is the middle has been sagging for many years," says Alan Krueger, a labor economist at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Freer trade intensifies the income inequality between skilled and less-skilled workers by favoring highly specialized labor. Foreigners seek the US goods and services not produced in their own economies and US consumers clamor for cheap imports made by low-skilled labor abroad.

Despite the wage gap, the economy gains overall, according to some estimates. When trade's share of gross domestic product rises by 1 percent, it lifts per capita income by at least 2 percent, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Riding a strong economy

Along with the lasting trend of trade, the passing trend of robust economic growth also helps skilled labor. The seven-year expansion has created an estimated 12 million jobs, mostly in professional services but many in manual work.

The next recession will test the staying power of these changes.