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A bad bargain: we should give up nationwide pay bargaining

19 September 2012

9:42 AM

19 September 2012

9:42 AM

Imagine what would happen to the Greek economy if a European trade union managed to secure the same salaries for Greece’s public employees as for their German counterparts. If that sounds like a bad idea to you, then consider the fact that in Britain we already have this arrangement across our country’s regions.

Nationwide pay bargaining imposes a limited salary range for all public sector jobs of a given type across our country, so that local pay cannot vary to reflect local conditions. Think about the North East. This is our Greece, a region where house prices and private-sector wages are lower than elsewhere. The national bargain means that in the North East public employees will be relatively overpaid. In contrast, the South East is our Germany. There, house prices and private-sector wages are relatively high, so the same job for the same nominal pay will be underpaid. It sounds like the effects should balance out across the country as a whole, but the available research shows that they don’t. On balance, we lose.

In the North East the public sector can easily attract employees. At the same time the private sector is blighted: on the evidence of Giulia Faggio and Henry Overman, firms that could sell to the national or international market and would otherwise have the potential to grow are squeezed because they cannot attract workers away from high-wage public employment. On average, Jack Britton, Carol Propper, and John van Reenan have shown, the residents of the North East get good schools and good health care. But the average does not apply to everyone; as Alison Wolf has argued, the gains go primarily to the pockets of affluence; schools and hospitals in particularly deprived areas within the region still struggle to recruit competent staff.


In the South East, the same research shows, hospitals and schools have struggled to recruit because public employees are relatively underpaid. They rely excessively on agency staff and teaching assistants. The education of children and the health of residents have suffered. Within the South East the losses bear more heavily on more deprived communities, because better-off families can turn to private education and health care.

Do the gains balance the losses? No. Carol Propper and her co-authors have shown that the health and educational losses in regions where public employees are relatively underpaid exceed the gains where the converse applies. It doesn’t all balance out. As a result, our country as a whole is left worse off.

Who gains? Apparently, two minorities. One minority is the public employees in the low house-price, low private-wage regions, who gain real income. Another minority is the national trade union officials who have gained status and power from national bargaining. They achieve this by siphoning influence away from their own grass roots – and money out of the Treasury.

National pay bargaining in the public sector is a mechanism that benefits a few and leaves the community worse off. It demands reform. Individual wage bargaining in the public sector would move the public and private sectors towards a level footing in each region. The overwhelming majority of our citizens would gain. Proposals for individual bargaining are sensible, and this is why I support them.

Mark Harrison is Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick and is one of the signatories of a letter today in The Times calling for an end to national pay bargaining.


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