Inequality and wages repression in Australia: workers’ experience is confirmed

Part 1

The latest Journal of Australian Political Economy (number 81) was published last week (click here) and reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday (click here).

This new issue provides an Australian explanation of the connections between wages repression and inequality, led by material from a symposium on this topic organised by Jim Stanford, from the Centre for Future Work, and are about “causes and consequences of the decline in labour’s share”.

Union and broader anti-poverty and social movement activists should be reading and discussing this material. It brings together a lot of stuff that has been treated to some extent, but superficially, in the daily media (mainstream and social), and also some that can be found in the ACTU and other progressive submissions to the National Wage Reviews.

The Introduction and Overview is a joint effort from Australia’s great political economist and activist, Frank Stilwell, and Frances Flanagan of United Voice (the union). They introduce and summarise all of the articles that follow.

The summary suggests that the articles reinforce widespread experience and shared data about the decline in labour share and its relationship to rising inequality, and provide new info and insights. I was not entirely convinced that we would get much insight on the “cause” of reduced labour share and rising inequality. There is no mention of exploitation in relationship to “labour’s share”, and precious little on profit.

The focus in this issue of the Journal of Australian Political Economy is on “Labour’s declining income share and economic inequality in Australia”.

Jim Stanford’s is the first and flagship article. He explains what “labour share” is, how it is measured, and what’s been happening to it. Except for a couple of important points (see more below), the exploration of “labour share” is quite meticulous and certainly enriches the capacity of labour movement activists to win debates about rising inequality.

“Labour’s share” of new wealth produced (GDP) and total national income (similar but not quite the same) is measured in Australia using data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. All of this data is publicly available and free of charge at the ABS website. In this total data the other shares go to corporations, small employers and the self employed, property owners, and government.

First, Jim establishes that, without doubt the labour compensation” (that is wages plus superannuation and workers compensation paid) share has steadily declined from the mid 1970’s highpoint onwards. And, further, that this translates as a consequence into downward pressure on personal income.

There are up and down blips along the way but the decline is steady, and is supervised by both LNP (right wing, pro-employer) and Labor governments. The Hawke Labor government (starting 1983) is marked by steep decline in the “labour share”. There are 2 good graphs that show this. There is a sharp fall again after the 2008 economic crisis – inherited at the time by the new Rudd Labor government – that then rises from a low level before falling to its current extremely low level since the current LNP governments.

Second, since the mid 1980’s there is a steep fall in the cost of labour to employers, again with a couple of blips along the way.

Third, and this is a big one: real productivity increases steadily and is much higher than both of the 2 measures of “labour compensation” that Jim uses.

Fourth, continuing his demolition job on those (especially employers and their cheerleaders) who wish to deny the reality of the decline in labour share, Jim presents and explains the data about inflation and prices increases, again using 2 measures. Again there are blips, price rises and falls are more volatile, and he integrates these into the story of what is happening to the “labour share”.

Fifth, we have his neat summary: since the mid 70’s there has been an 8% fall in the “labour share” and a 7% increase in the share going to corporations. The shift away from “labour’s share” works out at about $150 billion per year. The share going to small business and self employed falls by 4%.

Finally, Jim compares what’s been happening in Australia with 25 other developed countries. He shows that what is happening in Australia is widespread but not universal. In one third of those 25 countries the “labour share” has been stable or increasing.

Thus, in reference to the “cause” of the problem Jim puts primary emphasis on institutional and policy pressures against workers and their wages. There is nothing about the intrinsic dynamic of capitalism.

Jim concludes that “economic growth alone will (not) ‘lift all boats’ and (will not) automatically ‘trickle down’ into material improvements for working Australians.”

From Jim’s material you can pin this down further: “Trickle down” under Wayne Swan (the Labor government’s Treasurer 2007-2013) and other Labor leaders has been almost as much a mantra, and a failure, as it was under the LNP’s Costello, Howard, Hockey and Morrison.

Labor, as a potential new government in 2019, will have to do much better and different than the ones that have preceded it. There is no sign that Labor’s leaders are up for that.

Part 2

What makes all of this useful? After all, as one Facebook friend said to me, correctly in my view, workers like him don’t need academic research to tell them that their standard of living is under pressure and falling; that their jobs are not, when it comes to wages etc, jobs they can rely on.

There is much truth in this, even more so when workmates are agreeing with each other and then thousands and tens of thousands attest to the same experience.

However, there are lots of workers who are not convinced and / or do not yet care, superficially at least. It is a part of winning the struggle to improve living standards to have the more detailed information and explanation that is available to to confirm and reinforce and, perhaps add to, what the majority know from experience.

This material helps to win workplace level debates (not just public media) that convince more workers to join in the struggle and to join in more vigorously. Further, it can provide insight for the union movement to develop a much better strategy than it has been using in the last 20 years.

Clearly, an industrial strategy (core business for unions) that accepts the broken rules (union practice since 2008) is not working; enterprise bargaining has been destructive for everyone, even for those who have had some wins under it, and the decline in labour’s share coincides also with a decline in union density and the decline in strike based struggles.

Now, some remarks about what I think is inadequate in Jim’s article.

The concept of “labour share” is actually a superficial way of describing what the “labour share” is all about. The labour share is a measure of exploitation. Exploitation is the core rationale for worker combination and unionism. It works like this. The “labour share” is a proportion of the total wealth produced (however it is measured and who by). But the total wealth produced is entirely dependent on the labour carried out by the workers who receive the “labour share”. The workers only get a part of the total they have produced. The “profit share” itself does not produce new wealth. The total surplus after the “labour share” is extracted, “stolen” sort of, appropriated, “taken” by those who have not produced any of it, from those who have.

Labour compensation therefore exists in relationship to profits. What’s happening to the “labour share” cant be fully understood without fully understanding what’s happening to “the profit share”. The continued downward pressure on wages does have a perverse logic in relationship to profits. There must be something going wrong with profits to require downward pressure on wages. Therefore, what is going wrong?

Jim treats this relationship quite shabbily and, therefore, amid all of the good stuff, he does not arrive at any satisfactory explanation about why both sides of government must help employers push the “labour share” downwards. He cannot describe the “causes” of the problem and that leaves him short on what the strategy could be to deal with it.

Let’s check this point in another way. At the start of his article Jim refers to a speech made by Philip Lowe, the Governor of Australia’s Reserve Bank, back in 2017. In that speech Lowe expressed concern about a low pay crisis. He repeated that in June 2018 in a speech to about 1000 manufacturing employers organised by the Australian Industry Group.

We can say this for sure: if you asked those 1000 odd employers what their prime obsession is, the answer would be profits. In their heads, listening to the Governor, they would be thinking through this question: “What does his message about wages mean for my profits, especially my profits relative to the capital I already own?”

This is the real world that workers must confront.

What is lost on the Reserve Bank Governor (at least in public), but not to employers, is that wages can only be understood properly in relationship to profits and the fixed capital that the labour (paid for with wages) brings to life to create new wealth, including those profits. (Among other things you might have noticed that he suggests workers ask for more, I guess just like Oliver Twist, and that employers should give them something. He does not call for industrial struggle.)

Its a worry for our movement when Jim and so many other labour (and environmental) economists make the same mistake. I look forward to reading the other articles to see if this mistake is remedied.

If we know what is happening to profitability we get a clearer sense of why there is a long term downward drive on wages. We are then truly analysing the problem and opening up the prospects of a strategy to deal with it.

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