Labor Today: Wages and Salaries Still Lag as Corporate Profits Surge
NY TIMES EDITORIAL
AUG. 31, 2014
In the months before Labor Day last year, job growth was so slow that economists said it would take until 2021 to replace the jobs that were lost or never created in the recession and its aftermath.
The pace has picked up since then; at the current rate, missing jobs will be recovered by 2018. Still, five years into an economic recovery that has been notable for resurging corporate profits, the number and quality of jobs are still lagging badly, as are wages and salaries.
In 2013, after-tax corporate profits as a share of the economy tied with their highest level on record (in 1965), while labor compensation as a share of the economy hit its lowest point since 1948. Wage growth since 1979 has not kept pace with productivity growth, resulting in falling or flat wages for most workers and big gains for corporate coffers, shareholders, executives and others at the top of the income ladder.
Worse, the recent upturn in growth, even if sustained, will not necessarily lead to markedly improved living standards for most workers.
That’s because the economy’s lopsidedness is not mainly the result of market forces, but of the lack of policies to ensure broader prosperity. The imbalance will not change without labor and economic reforms.
For instance, new research from the Economic Policy Institute shows that from the first half of 2013 to the first half of 2014, hourly wages, adjusted for inflation, fell for nearly everyone. An exception was a small gain for the bottom 10 percent of wage earners, which was because of minimum-wage increases in 13 states this year.
That’s clear evidence that raising the federal minimum wage, while only a first step toward better pay, would have a powerful effect. A lift from the current $7.25 an hour to the modest $10.10 called for by President Obama and Democrats in Congress would put an estimated additional $35 billion in the pockets of affected workers over a three-year phase-in period.
Unionization is also associated with higher wages and benefits, especially for low-wage workers, which argues for greater legal enforcement of the right to organize without retaliation.
Similarly, stronger enforcement of both labor laws and antitrust laws is needed to ensure against wage theft. Once assumed to be mainly an issue of unpaid overtime or other wage violations, wage theft became a white-collar issue this year, when it was revealed that collusion among the biggest companies in Silicon Valley had suppressed the pay of software engineers by an estimated $3 billion.
The pay of middle-income workers has also been diminished. Decades of outsourcing government jobs to the private sector has undercut public employment, once a mainstay of middle-class life, even as evidence has mounted that outsourcing often does not save money or improve services. What’s needed is a systematic review of government contracts with the private sector and a willingness to end those that are counterproductive.
Another threat to middle-class wages is rampant misclassification — of employees as independent contractors and of workers as supervisors — a tactic that employers use to deny pay and benefits that would otherwise be due. In a promising development, a federal appellate court recently ruled that drivers for FedEx in California are employees, not independent contractors, an example of the courts stepping in when the other branches of government have let an injustice persist.
There has been progress since last Labor Day. Mr. Obama has signed executive orders to improve the pay and working conditions of employees of federal contractors. The Labor Department is revising rules on overtime pay; simply updating them for inflation would make millions of additional workers eligible for time-and-a-half for overtime.
What is still lacking, however, is a full-employment agenda that regards labor, not corporations, as the center of the economy — a change that would be a reversal of the priorities of the last 35 years.