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Along with the staggering theft in broad daylight of Americans’ assets that has occurred in the course of the ongoing financial crisis, as taxpayers funded multi-trillion bank bailouts and banks stole homes through foreclosures with the help of fraudulent paperwork, American companies have also been picking the pockets of workers more directly.
This second round of paycheck theft has come in the form of stolen productivity gains.
Historically, the relatively high and rising standard of living of American workers–both blue and white-collar–, which once gave the US one of the highest standards of living in the world, has come courtesy of rising productivity, which has allowed US companies to produce more goods with less labor, and to then pass some of the enhanced profits on to workers in the form of higher wages, without having to raise prices. That has been important because, when higher wages are financed by higher prices, it tends to be a kind of zero-sum game: higher wages cancelled out by inflation.
But beginning in 2000, the old system, already creaky, broke down.
The corporate onslaught against trade unions and against the minimum wage, which began with the Nixon administration in 1968, combined with so-called "free-trade" deals that allowed US companies to shift production overseas and then to freely import the products of their overseas production facilities back for sale to Americans at home, by weakening the power of workers to demand higher wages, has led to a situation where companies can just pocket all the profits from productivity gains, leaving wages stagnant, or even driving them down.
The recession that began in late 2007 has only made matters worse, giving owners and managers to opportunity to really hammer employees. With real unemployment and underemployment now running at close to 20%, employees are in no position to press for higher wages, even as those who are still working are putting in extra effort to keep their jobs, thus pushing productivity gains even higher.
The figures speak for themselves.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gains during the 1990-1999 decade averaged just 2.1% per year. The prior decade, from 1980-1989, the average productivity gain was 1.5% per year. But between 2000 and 2009, when the economy suffered two recessions, the average annual productivity gain has been 2.9%, almost 50% higher than the prior decade, and almost double the rate in the 1980s.
During this same period, however, wages have actually declined. According to the BLS, wages in 2010 rose 0.1%, but inflation, running at an official (and grossly under-measured) 1%, more than ate that up. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, for the whole decade from 2000 through 2009, wages actually sank for most people. In 2000, the median weekly wage for a high school graduate was $629. By the end of 2009, high school graduates were earning a median weekly wage, in inflation-adjusted dollars, of just $626–three dollars a week less than a decade earlier. A college degree didn’t change things, either. In 2000, the median weekly wage for a college grad was $1030, but that had fallen to $1025 by the end of 2009.
Remember, all during that decade, companies were seeing productivity gains averaging almost 3% per year. If 50% of that gain in productivity annually had gone to workers, as might have been typical back 30 years ago when unions were stronger and before Congress gave away the store by signing onto the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Act and similar trade agreements, that high school grad would have been earning $729 a week in inflation-adjusted dollars by 2009, while the college grad would have been earning $1,195.
Of course as a whole, Americans have been doing even worse, because these are just the mean wages of people who are working full weeks. In fact, many companies have been laying off workers, and making the remaining workers, desperate to hang on to their jobs, work harder to produce the same amount of product, meaning that besides not getting any pay increase, they are producing much more profit for the boss. Many workers who are still hanging onto their jobs are actually working fewer hours, and thus are taking home smaller paychecks, all of which goes into that higher productivity figure for output per worker the government is reporting.
Indeed, the Wall Street Journal today reported glowingly that US production of goods and services had returned to its 2007 pre-recession level, but this is with unemployment running at an official rate of 9.8 percent, and an actual rate of about 19 percent.
What we’re witnessing is a massive national "speed-up" which is enriching the owners of capital, while the workers are getting stiffed. It is the payoff to the ruling class of decades of hammering of trade unions, and also of trade unions cutting deals with the Democratic Party, which in turn has refused to defend workers’ interests. Look at the sell-out of Labor during the first two years of the Obama administration. The union movement’s one big issue–restoring some measure of fairness to the Labor Relations Act, so that it would be at least possible to organize unions and to win contracts and improved wages and working conditions–was dropped without even a fight by the Obama administration and the leadership of the House and Senate. The government, fully in the hands of Democrats, has also continued to sign trade agreements, most recently with Korea, that further shift jobs overseas, thus further weakening the position of workers here at home.
A cynic might speculate that this is also why the Democrats have refused for over three years now to come up with any real public jobs program despite the desperate straits of tens of millions of jobless people who have been without work for more than a year. The Democrats, in thrall to corporate interests, would on the evidence much rather spend $50 billion on a program of extended unemployment benefits that leaves those millions of people hungry for any real job, than spend that same sum on providing them with government jobs, as that would actually reduce unemployment and increase the bargaining power of all workers vis-a-vis employers.
Meanwhile, the national corporate media, itself viciously anti-union, continue to skew news coverage to portray unions as corrupt and greedy, so that the 90 percent of American workers who are not in a union don’t even realize that any pay gains or benefits they get are because employers are trying to avoid unionization of their workforce.
Unless Americans wake up soon to how this process is impoverishing us all, we will see this shifting income and wealth to the top strata of the population continue until most of us are little more than modern-day serfs.
A start would be for people to at least recognize that this stagnation and decline in incomes we’re witnessing is not some natural phenomenon. It is, no less than the fat salaries, perks and bonuses paid by corporate managers to themselves, simply another manifestation of corporate greed gone wild.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org