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You are Working Harder and Getting Paid Less

The bad news: Your wages are declining. The worse news: Surveys documenting falling wage actually under-estimate how much your wages are declining.

A recent entrant to this labor literature, a research paper titled “Decomposing the Productivity-Wage Nexus in Selected OECD Countries, 1986-2013,” studied 11 advanced-capitalist countries and found that in eight of them median wages have not kept pace with growth in labor productivity. To put the preceding sentence in clear language: You are producing more and getting paid less.

You likely did not need to read the above to know that. But there is nothing wrong with confirmation. The paper’s authors, Andrew Sharpe and James Uguccioni, publishing in the International Productivity Monitor, wrote:

“In eight of the 11 [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries examined in this article, median real wage growth since the mid-1980s has not kept pace with labour productivity growth. The size of the growth gap between labour productivity and median real wages differs across countries, but the qualitative pattern is consistent: workers are growing more productive, but those productivity gains are not being matched by growth in the typical worker’s wage.”

The 11 countries studied were Canada, the United States, Norway and eight members of the European Union — Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom. Working people in the United States will not be surprised to find that the widest gap between pay and productivity growth occurred there, with Germany in second place. Spain, Norway and Ireland were the three exceptions, although in each the gain in wages over productivity is small.

There is no one single factor accounting for these results, the authors write, looking to mainstream economics for explanation. They offer conventional causes for declining wages:

“The causes of labour’s deteriorating bargaining power are hotly debated. One of the most trumpeted causes is globalization. Proponents argue that capital is far more mobile than labour in an increasingly globalized world, which makes the threat of outsourcing and offshoring far more credible. Due to the threat of offshoring from countries with less strict labour regulations and lower labour costs, workers are increasingly forced to accept lower wages. Some argue that labour’s deteriorating bargaining power is less a matter of globalization and more a matter of technological change which is biased against labour. For example, the OECD [in its 2012 employment outlook] argues that the spread of information and communication technologies have led to major innovation and productivity gains over recent decades, but have also had the effect of replacing workers altogether. The result is an increase in capital’s bargaining power, and a decrease in labour’s — particularly for workers in highly repetitive jobs which naturally lend themselves to automation. Structural and institutional reforms may also have contributed to the reduction of labour’s bargaining power.”

Globalization, yes, but what is behind globalization?

Are these causes some natural phenomenon like the tides in the ocean? Or might there be reasons behind these explanations? To this we will return. But, first, it should be noted this report under-reports the extent that wages are falling behind, which the authors readily acknowledge.

This under-estimation is revealed when the differences between average and median real hourly earnings are reported. This matters because an average is the midpoint between highest and lowest, while median represents the earner at the point where half make more and half make less. When those at the top make more and the rest make the same, the average goes up while the median stays the same; thus examining median income as opposed to average gives a more accurate representation.

Of the 11 countries examined, the authors report that median hourly earnings fell further behind average hourly earnings in 10, with France the exception and there the change was minuscule. This finding represents fresh proof of increasing wage inequality. The biggest increasing in this measure of wage inequality is — surprise! — the United States, followed by Britain. OK, United Statesians or Britons reading these lines won’t be surprised.

The paper’s authors report:

“Empirically, earnings distributions within OECD countries are positively skewed; the mean is greater than the median because the mean is dragged upward by very high earners. … This would imply that the gains from labour productivity are flowing disproportionately to workers who were already high earners relative to the median worker.”

Only the wages of the top one per cent grew faster than productivity growth.

“[R]emoving the top one percent from labour income doubled the rate of decline of labour’s share of income in Canada and the United States. In fact, the removal of the top one percent from total labour income hastened the decline in labour’s share of income in all of the OECD countries they studied except Spain.”

There are plenty more studies where that one comes from. The International Labour Organization, in its 2014/2015 Global Wages Report, similarly found that wages are declining:

“In the group of developed economies, real wages were flat in 2012 and 2013, growing by 0.1 per cent and 0.2 per cent, respectively. In some cases — including Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom—average real wages in 2013 were below their 2007 level. … Between 1999 and 2013, labour productivity growth in developed economies outstripped real wage growth, and labour’s share of national income – also a reflection of the link between wages and productivity – fell in the largest developed economies.”

Less income and fewer protections for labor

David Ruccio, in a brief post for the Real-World Economics Review Blog, reports that the labor share of income in the United States is the lowest it has ever been since the end of World War II. The tendency throughout the period has been for decline, but the decline has been much steeper since 2001 —  labor share of income in the U.S. is 15 percent lower than it was in 2001. Skewing those results is that the share of income going to the top one percent has doubled since the mid-1970s. So the income share of working people has actually worsened more than the overall statistic indicates.

Concurrent with the increasingly precarious state of working people are dwindling labor rights. No country on Earth fully safeguards labor rights, the International Trade Union Confederation found in its 2017 Global Rights Index report. On a scale of one to five, with one representing the countries with the best ratings (merely “irregular violations of rights”) and five representing the worst (“no guarantee of rights”), Britain and the United States received rankings of four. Thus inequality being the most pronounced in those two countries, so fond of finger-wagging at the rest of the world, comes as little surprise.

And still less so considering the immense pressure financial capital puts on corporate executives to squeeze ever more out of employees, exemplified by Verizon Communications attacking its workforce to the point of forcing its employees to go on strike despite racking up $45 billion in profits over five years and Wall Street judging even merciless Wal-Mart as insufficiently ruthless in extracting billions of dollars in profits out of its employees.

The reasons behind these trends appear to be somewhat of a mystery to the two authors of “Decomposing the Productivity-Wage Nexus.” They disapprove of the decline in wages they document but seem to believe this is due to some unfortunately poor political decisions. They conclude their paper with these thoughts:

“The lack of inclusive growth we observe in many OECD countries has significant societal implications. There may be less political support for productivity-enhancing policies in the future if the benefits of productivity growth are not shared equitably. The incentives for employees to work hard may diminish if they believe that they are not receiving their ‘fair share’ of the firm’s productivity gains. Finally, the current taxes and transfers system may not be well equipped to offset the growing trend of wage inequality among workers if it was designed assuming labour productivity growth will lead to real wage growth for all workers.”

Writing a letter to your representative might not do the trick

Well, it’s all a misunderstanding then? If only we speak up, and point out the unfairness of this, somebody out there will do something about it. One imagines that members of parliaments and congresses are largely aware of growing inequality. But if political policies are doing what the sponsors of those policies expect them to do, just what should we expect those office holders to do? This sort of class warfare rages on because only one class is waging it, and that class has the means to dominate society through a mass of institutions paid to do their bidding, control of the mass media and ability to buy government and the legislative process.

Does anybody believe that Donald Trump, or Theresa May, or Emmanuel Macron, or Malcolm Turnbull, upon receiving a well-written letter explaining the problem, would then slap their heads to their forehead and exclaim, “I never realized this was happening!” Pigs, elephants and polar bears will all fly long before any such epiphanies. We can add leaders of the past, such as Gerhard Schröder, to the list. It was the former Social Democratic leader, when chancellor, who pushed through his “Agenda 2010” legislation to codify austerity on German workers, which, inter alia, cut business taxes while reducing unemployment pay and pensions. German wages have been suppressed since 2001 in relation to inflation or productivity gains — the prosperity of German manufacturers has come at the expense of German workers.

Globalization, pointed to by the two authors of “Decomposing the Productivity-Wage Nexus” as a culprit, doesn’t happen in a vacuum or because some capitalist somewhere woke up in an ornery mood. Globalization is the response of industrialists and financiers to the rigors of capitalist competition.

Once the limits of Keynesianism were reached in the 1970s, and the growth levels of the mid-20th century could no longer be sustained, capitalists ceased tolerating wage increases. Instead, from their perspective, they needed to force through wage cuts to maintain profit margins. Relocating production to places with lower wages and fewer regulations was the answer.

Mergers, with attendant layoffs, are another response to capitalist competition. Once one capitalist succeeds with such an “innovation,” the others must follow on pain of losing their competitive position. The need to move raw materials and finished products across borders, from the capitalists’ point of view, necessitates the lowering of barriers and borders to trade, and thus the increasing harshness of so-called “free trade” agreements that are promoted by multi-national corporations.

Globalization is not some natural process beyond human control, but rather is the result of capitalist competition — of allowing markets to decide ever more outcomes. When one side has so many more resources and weapons at its disposal, it’s no surprise that class warfare is such a one-sided affair. If we want the world to be otherwise, we’ll have to struggle for it. Everything of human creation can be changed by human effort, including the world’s failing economic system.

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Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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