An increase in wages sufficient to prevent a further fall in real wages would do little harm to the economy and much good to businesses hoping their sales will keep going up rather than start going down.
It’s hard enough to figure out what’s going on in the economy – and where it’s headed – without media people who should know better misrepresenting what Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe said last week about wages and inflation.
One outlet turned it into a good guys versus bad guys morality tale, where Lowe rebuked the evil, inflation-mongering unions planning to impose 5 or 7 per cent wage rises on the nation’s hapless businesses by instituting a “3.5 per cent cap” on the would-be wreckers, with even the new Labor government “bowing” to Lowe’s order that real wages be cut, and the ACTU “conceding” that 5 per cent wage claims would not go forward.
ACTU boss Sally McManus was on the money in dismissing this version of events as coming from “Boomer fantasy land”. What she meant was that this conception of what’s happening today must have come from the mind of someone whose view of how wage-fixing works was formed in the 1970s and ’80s, and who hadn’t noticed one or two minor changes in the following 30 years.
No one younger than a Baby Boomer could possibly delude themselves that workers could simply demand some huge pay rise and keep striking – or merely threatening to strike – until their employer caved in and granted it.
Or believe that, as really was the case in the 1970s and 1980s, the quarterly or half-yearly “national wage case” awarded almost every worker in the country a wage rise indexed to the consumer price index. Paul Keating abolished this “centralised wage-fixing system” in the early ’90s and replaced it with collective bargaining at the enterprise level.
John Howard’s changes, culminating in the Work Choices changes in 2005, took this a lot further, outlawing compulsory unionism, tightly constraining the unions’ ability to strike, allowing employers to lock out their employees, removing union officials’ right to enter the workplace and check that employers were complying with award provisions (now does the surge in “accidental” wage theft surprise you?) and sought to diminish employees’ bargaining power by encouraging individual contracts rather than collective bargaining.
Julia Gillard’s Fair Work changes in 2009 reversed some of the more anti-union elements of Work Choices but, as part of modern Labor’s eternal desire to avoid getting off-side with big business, let too many of them stand.
As both business and the unions agree, enterprise bargaining is falling into disuse. On paper, about a third of the nation’s employees are subject to enterprise agreements. But McManus claims that, in practice, it’s down to about 15 per cent.
All these changes in the “institution arrangements” for wage-fixing are before you consider the way organised labour’s bargaining power has been diminished by globalisation and technological change making it so much easier to move work – particularly in manufacturing, but increasingly in services – to countries where labour is cheaper.
In the ’80s, about half of all workers were union members. Today, it’s down to 14 per cent, with many of those concentrated in public sector jobs such as nursing, teaching and coppering.
All this is why fears that we risk returning to the “stagflation” of the 1970s are indeed out of fantasy land. Only a Boomer who hasn’t been paying attention, or a youngster with no idea of how much the world has changed since then, could worry about such a thing.
The claim that Lowe has stopped the union madness in its tracks by imposing a “3.5 per cent cap” on wage rises misrepresents what he said. It ignores his qualification that 3.5 per cent – that is, 2.5 per cent as the mid-point of the inflation target plus 1 per cent for the average annual improvement in the productivity of labour – is “a medium-term point that I’ve been making for some years” (my emphasis) that “remains relevant, over time,” (ditto) and is the “steady-state wage increase”.
Like the inflation target itself, it’s an average to be achieved “over the medium term” – that is, over 10 years or so – not an annual “cap” that you can fall short of for most of the past decade, but must never ever exceed.
Supposedly, it’s a “cap” because of Lowe’s remark that “if wage increases become common in the 4 to 5 per cent range, then it’s going to be harder to return inflation to 2.5 per cent.”
That’s not the imposition of a cap – which, in any case, Lowe doesn’t have to power to do, even if he wanted to – it’s a statement of the bleeding obvious. It’s simple arithmetic.
But it’s also an utterly imaginary problem. It ain’t gonna happen. Why not? Because, as McManus “conceded”, no matter how unfair the unions regard it to force workers to bear the cost of the abandon with which businesses have been protecting their profits by whacking up their prices, workers simply lack the industrial muscle to extract pay rises any higher than the nation’s chief executives can be shamed into granting.
While we’re talking arithmetic, however, don’t fall for the line – widely propagated – that if prices rise by 5 per cent, and then wages rise by 5 per cent, the inflation rate stays at 5 per cent. As the Bureau of Statistics has calculated, labour costs account for just 25 per cent of all business costs.
So, only if all other, non-labour costs have also risen by 5 per cent does a 5 per cent rise in wage rates justify a 5 per cent rise in prices, thus preventing the annual inflation rate from falling back.
In other words, what we’re arguing about is how soon inflation falls back to the target range. Commentators with an unacknowledged pro-business bias (probably because they work for big business) are arguing that it should happen ASAP by making the nation’s households take a huge hit to their real incomes. This, apparently, will be great for the economy.
Those in the financial markets want to hasten the return to target by having the Reserve raise interest rates so far and so fast it puts the economy into recession. Another great idea.
Meanwhile, Lowe says he expects the return to target inflation to take “some years”. What a wimp.
Ross Gittins is the economics editor.
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