Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Wage growth the key to lasting economic strength in 2018

So, no train strike in Sydney because unionists were ordered to keep working by the Fair Work Commission. Is that good news or bad? Depends on the point from which you view it – but don't assume you have only one of 'em.

And if your viewpoint's from somewhere in Victoria, don't assume it's a matter of little relevance to your own pay packet.

A 24-hour train strike would have caused great inconvenience to commuters and disruption to many businesses – which is precisely why the unionists were ordered to abandon their strike. Thank goodness. Damage averted.

Or maybe not. The union wanted to strike for better wages and conditions during the very brief period following the end of an enterprise agreement when industrial action is legally protected.

I don't want to shock you, but all strikes are designed to impose financial costs on an employer – that's what gives bosses an incentive to agree to pay rises they don't fancy. Inconvenience to the employer's customers is usually unavoidable.

It's no bad thing that such disruption has become rare – always provided employers and their workers are able to reach agreement on reasonable wages and conditions without the need for disruption.

That's what gives the averted rail strike its wider significance. If the rail workers can't strike even during their brief "bargaining period", when can they? Maybe never. In which case, what's to stop employers driving ever more one-sided bargains?

The union movement's response is to claim that the right to strike is "very nearly dead". I'm not convinced. But, equally, I'm not certain it contains no element of truth.

And get this: if it is true that the past few decades of industrial relations "reform" have robbed the nation's workers of much of their power to bargain collectively, that's not just bad news for more than 12 million employees, and their dependents, it's bad news for the entire economy – including most of the nation's grossly overpaid chief executives.

This is an issue we'll keep hearing about this year. Much – even the fate of the Turnbull government – will turn on an issue it doesn't want to talk about: what happens to wages.

There's great optimism among economists and business people about a return to strong growth in the economy this year.

Everyone's convinced the world economy will grow faster than it has in years and, at home, the amazingly strong growth in employment last year – most of it in full-time jobs – is expected to continue.

What could be better calculated to lift the survival prospects of Malcolm Turnbull and his band of not-so-happy siblings, who must face an election by the middle of next year at the latest?

While economists and business people sing eternal praises to the great god of Growth in the size of the economy, voters care most about increased Jobs. The two usually go together, but they're not the same.

There's just one problem with the rosy prospects for Jobson Grothe this year: wages have grown no faster than consumer prices for the past four years. Employees have gained nothing from the improvement in productivity during that time, with all the lolly going to profits.

Does that sound like heaven on a stick for our business people? Many are yet to realise it's a fool's paradise. But, rest assured, if it keeps up for another year, light will dawn.

There are rival explanations for the weakness in wage growth. Some say it's temporary, others that it's lasting.

The econocrats – whose forecasts for wage growth have been way too high for years – say it's just a result of the economy's slow recovery from the resources boom, plus maybe a little digital disruption, and will go away if we're patient a bit longer.

They say it's simple supply-and-demand: as employment keeps growing, suitable labour becomes harder to find, obliging employers to pay higher wages to attract the staff they want.

Others fear the problem is deeper and long-lasting: it has been only the collective bargaining strength conferred on employees by industrial relations law that has allowed them to extract from employers the wage growth (above inflation) that has been their rightful share of improved productivity.

By now, however, years of "reform" have swung the industrial relations pendulum too far in favour of employers, thus allowing them to avoid sharing any of the productivity gains with their workers.

What do I think? My guess is it's a bit of both. It's too soon to be sure how much of the problem is temporary and how much is permanent, requiring governments to do more to roll back the Howard government's measures to discourage collective bargaining.

But time's running out for the not-to-worry brigade. If we don't see some quickening in wage growth as the year progresses, suspicions will increase that the economy's stopped working the way it's supposed to.

It's weak growth in wages that's really driving voters' complaints about the rising cost of living.

Worse, consumer spending is by far the biggest contributor to growth in the economy. Consumer spending is driven by the growth in household incomes, which in turn is driven partly by rising employment, but mainly by real wage rises.

Take away the real growth in wages and neither the economy nor jobs will stay growing strongly for long. If so, neither voters nor business people are likely to be happy.