Why don't wages fall?

"Nominal wage rigidity" is one of the bigger gaps in theoretical economics.

One of the longstanding disconnects between empirical and theoretical economics is the fact of "nominal wage rigidity". This is the fact that, no matter what level inflation is, nominal pay cuts are incredibly rare. Most of the time, economics is concerned with "real" price levels – that is, prices taking inflation into account. That idea leads to the idea of "real" pay cuts – when your wage rises slower than inflation.

But while real pay cuts are relatively easy to force on employees, nominal ones – when the actual numerical value of their salary is reduced – are significantly harder.

In graphical form, that phenomenon looks like this, from the San Francisco Fed:

 

The dashed line represents the distribution on wage changes you would expect to see if the nominal value didn't matter – a lot of businesses cutting wages, and a lot increasing them, with a slight edge to those increasing them – hence the peak of the distribution is slightly to the right of the zero line.

The bars represent the actual wage changes – and that spike at zero is all the people piling up against downward nominal wage rigidity. (If inflation were higher, the peak of the distribution would be further to the right, and that spike would be smaller.)

But why does this happen? The Jacobin's Seth Ackerman, reporting on the downfall of US snack food manufacturer Hostess, quotes Truman Bewley's seminal 1999 book Why Wages Don’t Fall During a Recession. Bewley actually asked employers why they didn't cut wages:

All of the following are quotes from different interviewees: “I have never cut wages.” “I never froze or cut pay, and never will.” “[A pay cut] is out of the realm of consideration.” “Such a thing is just not done.” “I have never cut anyone’s pay.” “I know something real. Never cut wages.” Over and over, the employers talked about disastrous turnover, bad morale, little acts of sabotage that would sap profits and make their lives miserable.

“If I cut pay, people would leave out of rage, even though they have no place to go,” said the owner of a car dealership with 30 employees.

It took a lot of work for Bewley just to find any companies that had cut their workers’ pay. “At the end of most interviews, I asked whether the respondent knew of any firm that had recently cut pay, and few had heard of any,” he wrote. “All but a few accepted wage rigidity as a fact of life.” But after much searching, he did manage to track down 36 businesses that had cut pay in the past half-decade or so, and he was able to gather more detailed information for 16 of them. In 13 of the 16 cases, the pay cuts were 10% or less. Many of the cuts were explicitly temporary. Of the remaining three cases, at least one involved cuts in work hours to make up for the pay cut.

As Ackerman argues in his piece, nominal wage rigidity is a fact of economics, and one that nearly every employer learns to live with, even when times are hard. The argument – much expressed in the case of Hostess, which was forced to close after workers refused to accept a 30 per cent pay cut – that these pay cuts must occasionally be imposed to bring wages to a "competitive" level is thus absurd. The actual way to phrase it would be that the company was uncompetitive. A competitive company doesn't find itself in the position where it needs to push a hail-Mary attempt to desperately reclaim some extra value from its workers even as it knows they are unlikely to relinquish it.

Striking workers on the picket line outside a Hostess distribution centre. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.