Will wages ever catch up in an era of weak unions, mergers, and rising inflation?
Jobs may be plentiful and corporate profits strong, but the US economy is still failing workers. Real wages for nonmanagerial employees have actually fallen over the past year, the latest sign that the gains of our long economic recovery may never trickle down.
The problem is twofold. First, paychecks aren’t growing as fast as you’d expect, given our historically low unemployment rate. Second, inflation is rising, forcing workers to use those slight gains —
and more — just to keep up with basic monthly expenses for things like gasoline and rent.
Let’s take those issues one at a time, because workers really are being squeezed on both sides.
When the economy is strong and the unemployment rate dips below 4 percent — as ours did in recent months — workers should be getting sizable raises. It’s a question of leverage. Companies can’t afford to lose employees, because the dearth of unemployed job seekers makes it hard to find replacements. And businesses looking to expand should be forced to poach good workers from rivals, often with the promise of a salary bump.
Somehow, this isn’t happening. Hourly earnings have risen by about 2.7 percent since last year. That’s not nothing, but it’s a lot less than the roughly 4 percent increases seen during the last two economic peaks, in 2000 and 2007.
It’s not entirely clear why today’s workers aren’t enjoying the same boost. Perhaps the job market isn’t quite as good as the unemployment rate would suggest, or maybe consolidation of companies and the decline of unions has lessened workers’ bargaining power. (You can’t blame health insurance and other nonwage benefits, as they are rising at a similarly slow rate.)
Whatever the cause, you still wind up with the same grounding reality: Take-home pay just isn’t increasing as fast as predicted at this point in the economic cycle.
Then comes inflation. Which is central to this story, because wage gains are meaningless if they’re outpaced by price hikes. Increasingly, that’s what’s happening. While pay has risen about 2.7 percent over the past 12 months, prices have gone up 2.9 percent.
A big chunk of this has to do with energy prices, including a roughly 25 percent jump in the cost of gasoline. But it’s not all about oil. Rents and housing costs have increased a less jaw-dropping but still hefty 3.4 percent in 12 months.
If anything, this trap — paychecks go up a little, and prices go up a little more — is likely to get worse.
Even if gasoline prices stabilize in the months ahead, workers will have to reckon with the impact of President Trump’s trade war, which is poised to increase the cost of all sorts of goods, from washing machines and refrigerators to cars and Christmas lights.
At the same time, the Federal Reserve is planning to raise interest rates repeatedly over the next 18 months to reduce overall spending and ensure that the unemployment rate doesn’t drop too low. That may be necessary to keep the economy from overheating, but it’s likely to reduce workers’ bargaining power and limit any further improvement in their paychecks.
Which means workers may be missing out on their last, best chance to snatch those raises — before the turn to higher tariffs and rising interest rates.
So perhaps it’s time to call it. Even if this recovery goes through next summer and sets the record as the longest in US history, it may also be remembered as the one in which workers never got their share.