Tuesday 5 March 2019

Is increasing workers' bargaining power a way of raising real wages?

There is no doubt that the last decade has been a terrible period for average real wages in the UK, with levels still below where they were before the Global Financial Crisis. It is very tempting to related this to the weak baragining power of workers. After all, we were being told before Brexit that the economy was strong, so if the benefits were not going to wages they must have been going somewhere else. Some people go further and say that one of the reasons that the bargaining power of UK workers is weak is because of high levels of immigration, and that therefore immigration must be responsible for lower real wages.

What people often forget is that real wages depend as much on prices as nominal wages. If nominal wages in the economy as a whole rise, firms can just pass additional costs on by raising their prices, leaving real wages unchanged. Equally if nominal wages are depressed because of weak bargaining power or immigration, firms are able to cut prices to become more competitive, rather than keep prices unchanged and raise their profits.

To see what firms have done on average we can look at the chart below, which shows the percentage shares of profits and wages in national income over the last thirty years. (They do not sum to 100 because of factors like self employment income and sales taxes.) The share of wages and profits in national income have been remarkably stable over the last two decades. It is simply not the case that bosses have been expropriating the gains from growth over the last decade.

So what does explain why real wages are still lower than before the Global Financial Crisis (GC), when the size of the economy a whole surpassed its pre-GFC level in 2013?

The first explanation is that GDP is not the right measure to use if you want to know about standards of living, because it can increase just because there are more people producing things in the economy. A much better measure is GDP per capita (GDP divided by the total population), and that only surpassed pre-GFC peaks at the end of 2015. It is one of the great ironies of UK politics (and a big media failure) that the growth the Conservatives like to boast about is in good part due to immigration they want to stop.

Yet GDP per capita is still higher than it was pre-GFC and real wages are not. The main reason for that is the exchange rate. We have had two very large depreciations since the GFC: one that happened as the crisis was unfolding and one as a result of the Brexit vote. This raises the price of imported consumer goods, which reduces real wages relative to GDP per capita. Another way of making the same point is that although each worker is producing a bit more stuff than pre-GFC, that stuff buys less overseas goods than it used to, which means workers are worse off.

The first depreciation probably reflected in part our dependence on a financial sector that was hit by the GFC, but the Brexit depreciation was a completely self-inflicted wound. But that aside, the overall message is that the main reasons for lower UK real wages are stagnant productivity and a decline in sterling.

Does this mean that weak bargaining power has nothing to do with weak UK wages? There are two potential reasons why there could still be some connection. First, there is some evidence that individual firms that have some monopoly power now share less of their surplus profits with workers than they used to, and that might well reflect weaker bargaining power. Perhaps the UK aggregate profit share might have fallen over the last decade if it hadn’t been for these firms passing on less of their surplus to workers.

Second, it might be the case that one reason why productivity is so poor is that nominal wages have remained low. If nominal wages rose because workers had more bargaining power, that might induce some firms to investment in labour saving machinery. This is an argument I examine in a new article in a special edition of Political Quarterly on post-Brext policy.

We have one clear recent piece of evidence on what happens if you raise nominal wages, and that is when minimum wages are increased. If George Osborne’s hike in minimum wages raised labour saving investment and productivity then no one has noticed. More seriously, the near consensus of the empirical literature on minimum wages is that increases generally do not reduce employment, and that appears inconsistent with those increases promoting labour saving investment. Now an increase in the minimum wages is not exactly the same as an increase in the bargaining power of workers, so this piece of evidence is not definitive, but as yet we have no strong evidence that greater bargaining power would spur innovation.

All this suggests that the declining bargaining power of workers is at best only a minor factor behind the decline in average real wages. To increase UK real wages we need to improve productivity, and that means not hitting investment on the head with first austerity and then Brexit. Evidence suggests that the best way to increase productivity is by raising demand so firms need to invest to meet that demand. Raining public investment would be the best way to stimulate aggregate demand.

But that does not mean that we should not increase the bargaining power of workers. There seems little doubt that working conditions in some occupations are pretty bad, and a strong union presence would be an effective way of improving the working conditions of workers. But I also think a strong union presence in a worksplace can have a positive influence on the distribution of real wages.

The average wage measure in the national statistics include some some very high wages at the top of the income distribution. Over the last thirty years the typical or median real wage has fallen by much more than the average, and that is because of rising inequality, a good part of which is due to high pay rises for the top few percent of earners. While some of that is just down to the rise of the financial sector, some is also within a firm. Andy Haldane at the Bank of England has also noted (page 8) that since the 1990s the wage share of older workers has risen, but the wage share of younger workers (below 35) has fallen. Furthermore, as Martin Sandbu points out, it is often inequality in the wage distribution that allows firms to continue to employ workers on low wages to do things a machine could do. Some of this growing inequality may have been a consequence of weaker trade unions.

There are therefore plenty of good reasons to want to increase the bargaining power of UK workers. Just don't expect that to have much impact on the living standards of workers. To raise real wages we need higher UK productivity, and that will only come from stronger private and public sector investment.


  1. There's nothing in this analysis which says increasing bargaining power won't increase wages right? You're saying that slow real wage growth hasn't been caused by declining bargaining power. But it doesn't follow from that increased bargaining power won't increase wages if firms are forced to reduce profits.

  2. It would be interesting to see median, rather than mean, share of productivity. As you suggest mean wages are skewed by a small number of high earners. So the situation for the median worker is likely to be worse than you suggest.

  3. Might bargaining power not matter at a time of weak aggregate demand but become important again when we return to full capacity?

  4. “To increase UK real wages we need to improve productivity”

    You don’t really address one of the arguments here. Why would employers invest in equipment if they can increase output by enticing additional worker at low wages from overseas? It is only when employers run out of workers that they have to start getting more output from each worker in order to increase profits. I have read anecdotal evidence that there is an increasing interest in automatic fruit pickers as the labour market gets tighter. I read an article recently by a journalist who is a supporter of Remain; he was interviewing workers who lived near a large warehouse operation. He said that locals were hoping to get better jobs and wages as the flow of immigrants decreased, but talking to the employer he felt that the locals would be disappointed because the company was looking to introduce more automation if it encountered labour shortages. The reporter didn’t address the fact that more automation increases output per worker and that, in the bigger picture, higher productivity leads to higher real wages.

  5. Sir,

    After the GFC I remember that there were Government calls for lending institutions to relax credit controls on businesses. The intention being to reduce the number of companies with liquidity problems from going in to administration/receivership. Given this (if it is true), there are companies in existence who prior to the GFC would have gone in to administration, but are kept 'alive' by this policy. Could not these underperforming 'zombie' companies have a part to play in the UK low productivity? The liquidity that keeps them alive could otherwise been invested in growing or new businesses that would have improved UK productivity?

    Thank you

  6. Your comment tariff is making just-in-time debate unviable!

  7. The prime cause of the lack of real wage growth in the UK economy is a lack of demand. The UK economy needs a fiscal stimulus.

    Globally there is also a terrible lack of demand. There have been great improvements in technology and massive economies of scale achieved by moving the majority of consumer goods manufacture to a few regions of China. These developments mean the world economy is vastly more capable than in the later half of the 20th century. The run down in the productive manufacturing sector in the developed world has been replaced by low productivity activities. Washing cars instead of making them. Delivering consumer goods instead of making them. This means there is massive spare capacity in all developed economies.

    Whats needed is a coordinated international effort to make use of the full capacity the world economy has. This would involve scrapping the IMF, World Bank and WTO. New institutions would focus on growth. There would be a permanent Marshall Plan for the developing world. Nascent industries in developing countries would be protected to allow development.

    Climate change offers a limitless opportunity for growth. All coal fired electricity generation must be phased out. There must be much more use of Gas, the cleanest fossil fuel, as a transition to renewable resources. There must be a Manhattan style project to achieve power from nuclear fusion. Many industries must be radically changed to reduce their climate impact.

    There is no physical constraint on the UK economy which means growth can only be less than 2% per annum. When the Treasury and the Bank of England insist on this self limiting it means change at the top and fresh thinking are required.

    1. Gas is not clean like ppl think. It is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 and it keeps leaking. It is not a bridge fuel, it has to be phased out. UK will need renewables (including wave power) and nuclear

  8. If earners are heterogenous, then it is trivial to show that an imbalance in workplace power can result in winners and losers. You need to break up your set of wage earners.

  9. In the U.S., on the other hand, there has been a sharp decline in the wage share post 2008. By some measures, there has been a long-term secular trend decline. Looks like a loss of bargaining power to me.

  10. About influence on investment:
    Is it possible that it has ambigous effect? Positive because of more purchasing power/more expensive labour.
    Negative, because of decrease of capital share of GDP, ergo decresing return on investment.

  11. “A much better measure is GDP per capita (GDP divided by the total population)”

    Interesting then to read that:

    “Travelodge wants to recruit parents returning to work to fill post-Brexit staffing gaps, as it pushes ahead with 100 hotel openings that will create 3,000 jobs over the next five years. The company, one of Britain’s biggest hotel chains with 575 properties, hopes to fill 550 jobs immediately by attracting parents with hours that fit around the school run.”

    So Travelodge is planning to increase economic activity without increasing the UK population, thus increasing GDP per head. If those jobs were to be filled by people arriving from abroad there would be the same increase in economic activity but the population would also rise, so any rise in GDP per head would not be as great. Plus of course some families will gain an extra wage earner and their disposable income will rise and that will help the economy. This a good example of how in the real world the country can prosper once the supply of cheap labour from abroad dries up.

    We were told that there would be rise of over 500,000 in the immediate aftermath of a leave vote but in reality unemployment has fallen below 4% for the first time since 1975.


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