Slow wage growth since the Great Recession has been puzzling. As the economic recovery has clocked eight years of growth, unemployment has dropped, but real median wages have barely increased.
Commentators have looked for explanations in everything from the rise of artificial intelligence to the scarring effects of the decade-old economic crisis.
However, slow U.S. wage growth has a longer history. Relative to the rapid growth marking the post-World War II period, median real wages have grown little since the 1970s (except for the economic boom of the late 1990s).
A growing body of research points to the decline in worker bargaining power as a core explanation. The long membership decline of labor unions has made it harder for workers to demand higher pay.
Nathan Wilmers, Assistant Professor, Work and Organizational Studies
From Washington Center for Equitable Growth
Stagnating wages among U.S. workers since the 1970s is well-documented. Also well-known is the outsized—and still growing—market impact of a small number of giant retailers such as Amazon.com Inc and Walmart Inc. What is less known is whether these two trends are linked.
In research I’ve been conducting—detailed in an article recently published in the American Sociological Review—I’ve found that increased pressure from large corporate buyers decreases wages among their suppliers’ workers. The growing influence of these buyers on workers’ wages is significant enough that it accounts for around 10 percent of wage stagnation since the 1970s. My findings show how shifts in market power have affected workers’ wage growth.
Relative to the postwar economic boom, U.S. workers’ pay growth has slowed by around one-half since the 1970s. During that same period, market restructuring has shifted many workers into workplaces heavily reliant on sales to outside corporate buyers. Large retailers such as Walmart and Amazon wield increasing power against manufacturing suppliers and warehousing and shipping contractors. When this happens, big corporate buyers are able to demand lower prices for the goods and services they are buying, and suppliers and contractors must sell at lower prices and try to cut costs. Likewise, companies increasingly outsource noncore functions, including food service, janitorial, and security jobs, a phenomenon known as the fissured workplace. The result is that more and more workers are employed by intermediate employers, which in turn rely on sales to outside corporate buyers.
Walmart announced today that it is raising its starting wages in the United States from $9 per hour to $11, giving employees one-time cash bonuses of as much as $1,000, and expanding maternity and parental leave benefits as a result of the recently enacted tax reform. It is part of Walmart’s broader effort to create a better experience for its employees and customers. The new tax law creates a major business opportunity for other retailers as well — if their leaders are wise enough to take advantage of it.
The U.S. corporate tax rate is dropping from 35% to 21%. Retailers, many of whom have been paying the full tax rate, are going to benefit substantially. Take a retailer that makes 15% pretax income. Assuming its effective tax rate goes from 35% to 21%, it could save the equivalent of 2.3% of sales. Specialty retailers with higher pretax income will save even more.
Retail executives have a choice in how they use these savings. I believe the smartest choice — one that will help them compete against online retailers like Amazon — is to create a better experience for customers and to achieve operational excellence in stores. For most retailers, doing both requires more investment in store employees — starting with higher wages and more-predictable work schedules. My research shows that combining higher pay for retail employees with a set of smart operational choices that leverage that investment results in more-satisfied customers, employees, and investors.Read More »
What’s the one thing Pope Francis, Barack Obama, Marco Rubio, and Warren Buffett all agree on? America needs to change the way it sets wages to overcome its economically and politically unsustainable levels of income inequality.
The question is how? Let’s start with some lessons from history and see how we can apply them to today’s economy and society.
For 30 years after World War II, wages and productivity in the U.S. moved up in tandem, creating a growing middle class and ensuring baby boomers could realize their American Dream. We called that the “post-war Social Contract.” Then in the 1980s, the social contract fell apart, starting 30 years of stagnant wages, growing inequality, and political polarization.
The post-war Social Contract was possible because the New Deal established a floor on minimum wages and protected workers’ rights to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Then in the mid-1940s as the domestic economy grew on the basis of purchasing power pent up during the war, United Auto Workers’ President Walter Reuther and General Motors (GM) CEO Charles Wilson negotiated what was called the “Treaty of Detroit,” specifying that wage increases would be set to match growth in the cost of living and productivity. The strength of unions then helped spread this “pattern” bargain across American industry.
MIT Sloan Prof. Thomas Kochan Photograph by Stu Rosner
From Harvard Magazine
An interview with Thomas A. Kochan, Bunker professor of management, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and co-director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research.
Harvard Magazine:You speak of a fundamental human-capital paradox in the way American employers and workers interact with each other.
Thomas Kochan: American corporations often say human resources are their most important asset. In our national discourse, everyone talks about jobs. Yet as a society we somehow tolerate persistent high unemployment, 30 years of stagnating wages and growing wage inequality, two decades of declining job satisfaction and loss of pension and retirement benefits, and continuous challenges from the consequences of unemployment on family life. If we really valued work and human resources, we would address these problems with the vigor required to solve them. Read More »