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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

American workers have been losing power since 1980 — but now the tables are turning.

Why it matters: The 2010s gave us the gig economy and left millions of workers stranded seemingly forever on the precipice of financial ruin. The 2020s could be the decade when workers seize back the reins of power.

Data: BLS via FRED; Chart: Axios Visuals

The big picture: The number of unfilled jobs continues to grow, the size of the workforce is stagnating, and workers are flexing their muscles whether or not they have formal union representation.

By the numbers: There are now a record 9.3 million open jobs in America. The labor force stands at 161 million, about 3 million people fewer than it was pre-pandemic, and has seen no growth since August.

  • Demographic realities mean that only increased immigration will be able to boost the number of working-age Americans in coming years.
  • The lowest wage that workers without a college degree would be willing to accept for a new job now stands at an all-time high of $61,483, a rise of $10,000 in just one year, according to a New York Fed labor market survey.

Financial security is now easier to come by even without at job, thanks in part to the Obama-era expansion of health insurance.

  • A booming stock market, along with the pandemic-fueled broadening of unemployment benefits, seems to have made enough workers rich enough that they can afford to be pickier about which jobs they're willing to accept.

Between the lines: Recent decades have seen exaggerated power asymmetries between most employers and most employees. That's a far cry from textbook capitalism, where the price of labor is determined in negotiations where both parties are on an equal footing.

  • Those negotiations are now beginning to happen in earnest, which can be discomfiting for employers.
  • The rise of sophisticated, free group-communication software, like Slack and Discord, has made it much easier for employees to talk to each other and to act in unison, without going through formal corporate channels.
  • Even gig-economy workers are beginning to win union representation.

The bottom line: America is not a workers' paradise. But it seems to be moving in that direction.

Go deeper

States that ended COVID unemployment benefits see no boost in job growth

Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

States that ended federal unemployment benefits earlier this summer saw August job growth at less than half the rate of states that retained the benefits, according to new data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Why it matters: Leaders in the largely Republican-led states had insisted that the benefits were discouraging people from work, and ended the assistance program early ahead of its planned expiration on Sept. 6.

Sep 16, 2021 - Health

France suspends 3,000 unvaccinated health workers without pay

A nurse tends to a patient at a hospital in France. Photo: Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty images.

France has suspended about 3,000 health workers without pay for failing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Reuters reports.

Driving the news: The suspensions came after Wednesday's government-imposed deadline for the country's 2.7 million health workers to get at least one dose of the vaccine.

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations were "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

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