Wages without raises

August 01, 1994|By Robert Reno

HAVEN'T HAD a decent raise in longer than you can remember?

Don't worry, nobody else has been getting one either, not unless they're part of one of the corporate hierarchies where the packages combining stock options, bonuses and salaries continue to grow with relentless generosity in curious contradiction of the trend toward downsized, layoff-driven, cost-obsessed corporations.

I know, I know. It all sounds like the story line for a cheap Marxist comic book written in his off hours by a hack writer employed during the day to churn out equally facile welfare-bashing, union-busting speeches for the Reaganomics crowd. But there is always a point somewhere at which simplistic reasoning becomes wisdom.

Even Ronald Reagan's anti-egalitarianism, trickle-down ravings would have had validity if he'd been applying them to the old Soviet system instead of late 20th century America.

Anyway, the Labor Department reported this week that compensation costs rose 3.2 percent in the year ending in June. This was the same increase as recorded in the previous year and both of them are the smallest since the government began measuring these costs more than a decade ago.

The cost of benefits rose 3.8 percent, down from a 5.5 percent rise in the prior year.

Eliminate what even mild inflation always does to these figures and if you're an American wage earner wondering why you don't seem to be joining the stampede to own a car phone, an interactive 88-inch TV, one of those overpriced Japanese or German wonder cars, even a fax machine, and you'll see why you've been left behind.

Now, of course, there is every reason to hope that the wage stinginess of corporate America has to do with its discovery that higher levels of capital investment will in the long run create more and better jobs, make the nation more globally competitive, reverse the trade imbalance, put the Japanese in their place and blah, blah, blah.

If that were all it was, it would be easy.

But what if it had more to do with the fact that the great majority of Americans are less secure in their jobs, more fearful of layoffs, less sure that their company will want them after they're 50, less convinced that their chances of being thrown out in the street have anything to do with how faithfully or how long they had served their employer?

What if it has to do with the fact that there is not an employer in America who doesn't know that the anxiety level of workers -- and their tendency to whine about higher wages -- have been moving in opposite directions.

The age of the throwaway wage earner is upon us, like a tidal wave. Maybe it is one of those Darwinian economic imperatives we must accept.

But let us not pretend, as Alan Greenspan does every time some poor slob gets a decent job or some commodity index frightens him, that we are doing something that is comfortable or beneficial to those good people of this nation who work for a living and who are suffering in one way or another.

They used to be the people we bled for, what this country existed for. And if they have all become ragged, discarded foot soldiers in the fight against inflation, somebody should tell them. Because the people of this nation are what matter.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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