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Keynes versus the Classics in the 1970s.


The wage inflation and unemployment in Australia during the 2970s have been analysed by many writers. With the benefit of hindsight, this paper examines the facts and assumptions of earlier writings in connection with various questions--whether centralisation of wage determination was a factor in the wage inflation, the circumstances leading to the wage indexation system, why the system failed, and whether reduced trade union density and enterprise bargaining after the 1990s were responsible for more moderate wage increases and reduced industrial strife. The paper notes the neglect in earlier discussion of the importance of trade protection and globalisation in the operation of the labour market.


The 1970s was a period of unprecedented economicturbulence in Australia--high inflation, the first oil crisis, increased unemployment, a wages explosion, a large increase in real wages and in the share of wages in the national income, many strikes, and the operation of a centralised wage policy based on wage indexation. Some of these happenings are reflected in the graphs in the appendix. (2) These issues gave rise to controversial analyses of their causes and the appropriate policies to deal with them. With the benefit of distance, how do we judge the policies that were applied?

Jenny Lye and Ian McDonald have dealt with the issues of the 1970s and beyond in a number of interesting papers but I take my text from their paper 'Union Power and Australia's Inflation Barrier 1965:4 to 2003:3' (Lye and McDonald 2006). This paper deals with Max Corden's 1979 article in which he blames the interaction between trade union power and the centralised system of wage bargaining for doubling the rate of unemployment in the preceding five years.

This interaction, Corden maintained, had caused a large increase in real wages and in the wage share which had created 'classical unemployment'.

Arguing on the basis of an econometric model, Lye and McDonald say that he is wrong. They say that although the changes recommended by Corden--reduced trade union power and a decentralised wage-fixing system--had occurred by 2003, the unemployment rate did not fall back to that of the early 1970s. Thus, despite the higher inflation barrier, a margin of Keynesian (involuntary) unemployment still exists which could be eliminated by demand expansion without inflation. Their explanation instead is that union power--as measured by union density--and increased unemployment benefits in the 1970s lowered the inflation barrier and increased unemployment. I am not competent to comment on their methodology so I should withhold judgment on their conclusion. But, given the structural changes in the workforce to which I refer later, I wonder whether a higher rate of frictional unemployment may not have been a factor in the higher overall rate of unemployment.

Both papers, however, raise a number of questions concerned mostly with the validity of some of their facts and assumptions.

1. Did the wages blow-out in 1973-75 occur under a centralised system?

2. Why did Australia move to a centralised wage-fixing system?

3. Why did the centralised system based on wage indexation fail?

4. Was reduced trade union density in conjunction with enterprise bargaining sufficient, as argued by Lye and McDonald, to explain the greater wage moderation in the years since 1979?

1. Did the wages blow-out in 1973-75 occur under a centralised system?

There is no question that trade union power was a critical factor in the wages blow-out, especially in 1974-75. Although union power is not to be measured by total union density alone, from the mid-1950s through to the early 1980s union density was just over 50 per cent (compared to the present 19 per cent). More importantly, strike statistics reflect the times; and anybody who lived through that period will recall the frequency of large protest groups of workers outside the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, their leaders using loud hailers to express the merits of their claims. But can the wage determination system between the late 1960s and April 1975 fairly be described as centralised?

Following the abandonment by the Commission of quarterly automatic cost of living adjustments in 1953, and assisted by full employment, the unions decided to seek increases in the field in addition to any award increases. Until 1970, overall wage and price increases were a worry, but not seriously so. By the early 1970s and especially by 1974, however, the size of piecemeal decentralised increases became alarming, many ranging between 15 per cent and 20 per cent. In addition to the immediate CPI increases, inflationary expectations and the high average income tax were built into wage demands. (3) The absence in those days of clearly defined fixed-term wage settlements meant that new claims could be made at anytime. Three mutually reinforcing rounds of pay increases were in motion--at the enterprise level, at the industry level, and at the national level by the national wage increases of the Commission as a follower of market settlements, granting increases to do justice to those who relied solely on its awards, but thereby adding to the pay of those already in receipt of increases from other sources.

The unions exercised this power individually but they were influenced by the success of those unions which led the charge for wage increases to maintain relativities in a process known as 'comparative wage justice'. The sense of 'fairness' in wage determination is not a new phenomenon but goes back to Marshall's Principles and Pigou's Economics of Welfare. Moreover, in the prevailing economic circumstances, no group of workers could assume that if they held their hands, others would do the same--a prisoners' dilemma situation! Thus no union leader could afford to sit back and expect to survive while their members were being left out of the race. It became a wage/price, wage/wage, price/wage inflation process with a vengeance. If account is taken of the fact that many award increases included awards made by consent (that is, by agreement between the unions and employers), well below half of arbitrated award increases came from centralised national wage increases. In contrast, between 1975 and 1979 well over 90 percent of award increases came from centralised wage increases. (4) It is clear, therefore, that the blow-out did not occur under a centralised system.

How was this possible? Legal sanctions against industrial action were not effective in those days. The economy was heavily protected, enabling employers to pass on cost increases, a point ignored or not adequately stressed by commentators.

Political considerations allowed monetary and fiscal accommodation, especially in 1972-73 after the election of the Whitlam government. The Labor Party Convention prior to the election had resolved to promote collective bargaining and the policy was being put into effect. Judging by Mr Whitlam's congratulatory note to the unions in the metal industries following their success in obtaining a $15 increase in wages, and the delight of Clyde Cameron, the Minister for Labour, at seeing the share of wages in the national income rise dramatically, one could infer that the government was not much concerned about a wages blow-out. Indeed, in the 1974 National Wage Case, the Commonwealth submitted in connection with the inflationary situation that 'the Government assumes full responsibility for the management of the economy'. The world economy had begun to decline, however, under the weight of the oil crisis, and Australian tariffs were lowered by 25 per cent in 1973. There followed an appreciation of the exchange rate and a belated tightening of monetary policy; but the wage inflation horse had bolted by then. With unemployment increasing, it became apparent that something needed to be done a bout wage policy (Sheehan 1981, pp. 145 et seq.).

2. Why did Australia move to a centralised system?

In the 1974 National Wage Case, the Commission, in rejecting the submission of the unions, supported by the Commonwealth, for the introduction of wage indexation, expressed concern at the three-tiered system of wage increases and raised the prospects of abandoning national wage increases, stating that any expectation that national wage increases would be forthcoming in the future was no longer warranted. (5) In the 1975 national wage proceedings, an extensive debate took place on what the Commission should do in the face of the wage inflation that had developed. (Bear in mind that, unlike the present legislation, considerable discretion was available to the Commission on procedure and principles.) The Commonwealth government, most of the states, all of the unions, and a senior member in the Federal Opposition--William Wentworth, who appeared in a personal capacity--all sought wage indexation in one form or another, but some made it clear that it should not be open-ended. The unions provided support from papers by a number of academics--Downing, Harcourt, Sheehan and Bentley. The employers opposed indexation, and although expressing dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs, made no positive submission about an alternative system. Three professors called as expert witnesses--Whitehead, Hogan and Gates--were against indexation. In the circumstances, three courses presented themselves to the Commission.

One, reduce money wages generally. In the context of the controversy between Corden, on the one hand, and Lye and McDonald on the other, it may be said that Pigou, not distinguishing between micro and macro situations, would have applauded it as a means of reducing real wages. Keynes of the General Theory, while agreeing that a reduction in real wages was necessary, (6) also on the assumption of decreasing returns, would have recommended a wage freeze accompanied by demand expansion allowing rising prices to reduce real wages. But for the Commission, given the power of the unions and bearing in mind that although unemployment more than doubled between 1974 and 1975--it was still below 5 per cent by the middle of 1975--such a course would have been unrealistic. There would have been strikes galore with attendant costs, and substantial wage increases would have been settled outside the Commission. At least, that was the considered judgment of the Commission, based on some of the submissions before it and on recent experience.

I pause hereto suggest that making a distinction between Keynesian and Classical unemployment is not meaningful in the circumstances. In an equilibrium situation, Keynes would probably say the unemployment was involuntary while Pigou would say it was voluntary. But we are not dealing here with equilibrium situations, nor were Pigou and Keynes familiar with wage-push inflation. One could accept Corden's modification of Pigou's term by regarding most of the unemployment as 'union-voluntary', but I would find it difficult to follow Lye and McDonald and call it Keynesian (involuntary) unemployment. As I have suggested, under their assumptions, both Pigou and Keynes would argue for a reduction in real wages. (7) They would differ on to how it would be brought about.

Two, abandon national wage increases and allow a fully decentralised system to operate. But there were clear indications that a few large wage settlements were in the wings, undeterred by growing unemployment, awaiting the outcome of the national wage case. Another wage explosion was on the cards. Moreover, no one in the proceedings had suggested this course. Given the conventions of arbitration proceedings which call for debate on any major change in the system, the Commission would have been unwise to take it.

Three, in view of the wide support for wage indexation and the assurance of the ACTU--that 'any wage increases other than those by way of quarterly indexation and national productivity ... would need to be small'--an incomes policy-type package based on indexation, not automatic but subject to quarterly review and the application of various conditions, seemed to be practicable. Although the discussion at the hearing did not articulate all the necessary conditions to accompany indexation, the Commission--on the basis of the ACTU's assurance quoted above--regarded the following package as critical if indexation were to be awarded:

1. The form of indexation would be considered at each quarter and wage increases for other reasons (for example, work value) would be based strictly on a coherent set of principles to justify any increases which, overall, would be small.

2. A 'catch-up' pay increase would be determined for those who had missed out on the recent round of wage increases. For the package to be generally acceptable to the unions, the catch-up was essential to avoid undue distortion of relativities and the associated sense of unfairness. Its impact on costs would delay the return to a more acceptable rate of inflation, but the alternative would very likely be many costly strikes.

3. Productivity-based national wage increases would be considered annually.

4. All other tribunals and all members of the Commission itself would be expected to adopt these principles.

5. All governments would be expected to support this approach by avoiding actions--payroll tax and other forms of indirect tax increases--as well as to take actions which would assist the restraints on wages.

(In May 1976--realising that unforseen problems had arisen--the Commission established a procedure to deal with anomalies so as to ensure that any correction would be confined to the particular cases and avoid flow-ons. Thereafter, from time to time, the President conducted reviews of the Principles and changes were made in the light of evidence and argument.)

The Commission seriously deliberated whether it would delay indexation by another quarter. This would have allowed the 3.6 percent March quarter CPI to go by default. Although such a course would have made an important contribution to lowering inflation, the concern about the likelihood of another wage break-out was compelling.

Thus, on 30 April 1975, the Commission tentatively proposed the package outlined and indexed wages generally by the 3.6 per cent March quarter CPI. It was the first time a centralised wage policy subject to a coherent set of rules was offered. Bear in mind that the Commission had no legal powers to enforce it, but had to rely on consensus and discipline on the part of all concerned. Bear in mind also that the function of the Commission under its charter was to prevent and settle industrial disputes. Of course, in discharging this function, economic considerations would also be relevant, including the impact of industrial disputes on the economy. Bear in mind further that administering a wage policy for which there is no consensus is a great deal more difficult than applying fiscal or monetary policy. Consensus of the major parties was essential. The Commission was not starry-eyed. It recognised the difficulties inherent in the package, which it described as 'fragile', but a more orderly system was essential if inflation and unemployment were to be corrected.

The decision was hailed generally, even if grudgingly, as sensible in the circumstances, not ideal, second-best but realistic. There are inherent difficulties in enforcing wage policy on a national scale without direct control of fiscal and monetary policies. Hence, the support of governments was necessary. The Commission hoped that, effectively, a lower and flatter Phillips curve would result from its policy in order to allow a reduction in unemployment to occur without undue price increases while the earlier wage explosion was working its way through the economy.

The system worked reasonably well for about three years--average ordinary time earnings for the March to March quarters fell progressively from 28 per cent in 1975 to 8.2 per cent in 1978, rising thereafter to 12.9 per cent in 1981. The CPI fell from 17.6 per cent to 8.2 per cent, thereafter rising to 15.2 per cent in 1981. (8) March quarter unemployment, having risen from 2.1 per cent to 4.6 per cent in 1975, remained steady at about 5 per cent through to 1977, and then began to increase, peaking at just over 10 per cent in June 1983. (9) The system progressively broke down after 1978 and was abandoned in July 1981.

3. Why did the centralised system fail?

A number of problems accumulated and weighed down the system. Concern about persistent unemployment led the Commission later to exclude from indexation the increase in the booming price of oil, to give partial indexation in 1977, and to move to half-yearly indexation in 1978. No productivity-based increases could be awarded because of the state of the economy. The unions felt that the expectations they had formed in 1975 were not being met by the Commission. They had largely played according to the rules. Peter Sheehan (1981, p. 159) has shown that between 1975 and 1979, there was hardly any wage drift and, in that sense, the system had worked. On the other hand, the Hayden budget of 1975 raised indirect taxes by 2 per cent while the newly elected Fraser government in December 1975 changed the basis of funding of Medicare adding even more to the CPI (Sheehan 1981, p. 167). Sheehan (1981, p. 161) has also shown that the growth of income, indirect taxes, and payroll taxes greatly exceeded the growth of wages salaries and supplements in the first four years of indexation, and that wages costs had raced well ahead of wages income in this period. The government had the opportunity to engage the unions in a wage/income tax trade-off in the 1976 budget, especially following the introduction of tax indexation, but instead they reduced income tax unconditionally. At a national wage proceeding, members of the bench floated the question of a wage/tax trade-off, but the Commonwealth made it very clear that the Commission should not meddle in such matters!

In short, instead of supporting the system, the Commonwealth acted perversely. The voice of the Treasury in the government's submissions and its faith in the wage/productivity overhang were evident. State governments could have reduced payroll tax, but they did not. The leaders of some of the stronger unions saw their traditional role of seeking improvements in the pay and conditions of their members taken over by the ACTU and began to press for increases independently; many employers resented the inflexibility of the Principles. Even certain members of the Commission stretched the Principles excessively in order to resolve disputes, leading the then head of the CAI to complain that the procedures of the system were 'too decentralised' (Noakes 1981, p. 268). The State tribunals were also taking a more generous line, concerned about the power of the stronger unions.

In short, in the face of the widespread loss of commitment to the Principles and the emergence of substantial decentralised wage increases, the Commission finally decided, in July 1981, to abandon the centralised system. It was a good try, but the supporting mechanisms on which it had relied to make the system work had not eventuated. An incomes policy (and this was an implicit incomes policy) without clear government support and trade-offs could not be expected to work.

Counterfactuals are speculative. Support for this view is, however, given by the return to centralisation in 1983. Now, it was with full Commonwealth government commitment and support for an incomes policy under the Accord with the trade unions. It produced wage restraint such that the general level of real wages actually fell, accompanied by a fall in unemployment. Its success is underlined in many studies, including one by Lye and McDonald (2004).

A wage surge followed the abandonment of the indexation package in 1981. Buoyed by the prospects of a resources boom, which did not eventuate, and pressured by the unions for two years for shorter standard hours, the employers in the metal industries settled by collective bargaining on reduced standard working hours and wage increases. Together, these increased wage costs by well over 20 per cent. Much of this settlement began to flow to other areas of employment including the clothing industry, but by then a world recession was taking place and unemployment rose to over 10 per cent in 1983.

In this connection, Corden has argued (1992, p. 111) that 'the principal reason [why the Commission had lost control] lay in the improvement in economic conditions: fundamental economic forces were at work, and stronger unions exploited their improved bargaining power'. In fact, although unemployment remained high, the breakdown had been coming progressively since 1978 for the reasons I have outlined. The straw that finally broke the camel's back just before July 1981 came mainly in the public sector--Telecom and the Commonwealth Public Service--PM Fraser and Viner, his Minister for Labour, complaining that the indexation guidelines were too restrictive. (10)

I conclude that Corden's thesis that the centralised system together with union power caused the unemployment is only half right. The wage blowout occurred before centralisation. Centralisation was brought in to slow down the pace of the wage increases which had been taking place in a decentralised labour market. The consequences of the latter were manifest, not only in the years before 1975, but also following the abandonment of the centralised system in July 1981.

4. Was reduced trade union density in conjunction with enterprise bargaining sufficient to explain the greater wage moderation in the years beyond the 1990s?

This question arises from another point made by Lye and McDonald. I should first like to raise a difficulty about the use of union density as a proxy for trade union power. For the period under consideration, this could be misleading. Proxies can hide other more significant and meaningful variables--a problem that sometimes arises with quantitative analysis. In France, for example, where the density is less than 10 per cent, union coverage through collective bargaining is around 75 per cent; unions are powerful and use industrial action effectively. The Melbourne University branch of the National Tertiary Education Union has a membership of about 30 per cent but its power of effective industrial action is close to zero.

Union density in Australia hovered around 50 per cent in the 1970s and the early 1980s. It then began to fall to 40 per cent in 1990, and to just below 30 per cent in 2000, and to just below 20 per cent more recently. The fall in density has been due to a number of factors. A significant structural change has taken place with a relative decline in manufacturing--traditionally the mainstay of union density and militancy--and a substantial increase in the services and financial sectors--traditionally an area of low union consciousness. In addition, the relative employment of women and students had risen substantially, and most of these were in part-time and casual employment, areas of employment disinterested in unions--workforce structural changes which may also have increased the rate of frictional unemployment.

The effect of trade union density on union power is not linear. Reduced union density does not necessarily explain reduced union power or the effectiveness of union power. The fact that awards and agreements apply to all employees of employers covered by them encourages free riders. Pre-1993, trade union numbers, particularly of the weaker unions, was sustained by quasi-compulsory unionism, a provision not legal thereafter, and a fact which partly explains the decline in union density. Disaggregating the total density would show that the pace-setting strong unions are still in evidence. In addition, the law has since the early 1990s imposed new restrictions on union power, and punitive measures against strike action have been sharpened. In the new environment of less secure employment, strikes become more costly to the workers. Moreover, in the last 20 years or so, an increasing proportion of wage earners have been encumbered by mortgage and other debts and strike action becomes less affordable for many. Also important is the fact that since the Accord, the union movement has gone through a fundamental philosophical change. The ACTU's 1986 publication Australia Reconstructed called for greater emphasis on productivity and less on increasing the wage share. Finally, and most important, these changes have come with the opening up of the economy and the ability of capital to relocate internationally and, more recently, for migrant labour to be brought into areas of labour scarcity. Just as high protection in earlier years gave unions the power to press for higher pay and for employers to concede and then to pass the parcel to the consumer, the global economy imposes restraint on unions and employers.

Thus, union density does not operate in a vacuum. I wonder, therefore, whether using union density (in conjunction with the reformed industrial relations system) as a proxy, in explaining the more moderate increases in pay since the 1990s, misses more fundamental factors that contrast the past with the present. It may be difficult to find a more appropriate proxy for these factors, but that seems to be a problem in quantitative analyses of labour market issues.

As for the Lye and McDonald argument about the effect of industrial relations reform in moderating inflation, it should be remembered that the system continued with centralisation through the determination of the Safety Net. It is true that the development of a more orderly and disciplined system of enterprise bargaining since 1993 was an important factor in the moderation of industrial action. Nevertheless, it is arguable that here again employment insecurity from global competition and the other factors I have mentioned in connection with the union density argument, rather than enterprise bargaining, must be regarded as an overriding factor in the reduction of industrial action. As argued earlier, there was much enterprise bargaining in the 1960s and early 1970s, but the protected economy allowed wage increases to be passed on through the wage structure. To express the issue more pointedly: Would the reduction in industrial action and the moderate wage increases have taken place under the new enterprise bargaining system in the 1990s and beyond if the economy had been protected to the same extent as it was in the 1960s and 70s?

Final thoughts

The above discussion raises two final thoughts.

One is a concern about the use of econometrics to explain social and economic phenomena. It is indisputable that econometrics has made an important contribution in this connection. Although Milton Friedman has pointed to the dangers of 'undue emphasis on the descriptive realism of "assumptions"' (1953, p. 42), I see dangers in factually inaccurate or simplified assumptions being made, especially those related to the behaviour of institutions such as trade unions and wage-fixing bodies which are not safely 'measured' quantitatively (Isaac 2011).

A second thought is that Australian unions are not alone in suffering declining density and power through global competition. They appear to have shared substantially the same fate as those in the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Ireland (Schmitt and Mitukiewicz 2011). The negative effects of global competition can be offset, however, by political and social attitudes and legislation sympathetic to unionism. This is reflected in the experience of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark where trade union density has been held at a high level--50 per cent and above.






Corden, W. M. (1979), 'Wages and Unemployment in Australia', Economic Record, vol. 55, pp. 1-19.

Corden, W. M. (1982), 'The Wages Push and Macroeconomic Policy: The Dilemmas Ahead', Economic Record, vol. 58, pp. 111-117.

Friedman, M. (1953), Essays in Positive Economics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Harley, Bill (2004), 'Managing Industrial Conflict', in Isaac, Joe and Macintyre, Stuart (ed s), The New Province for Law and Order: 100 Years of Australian Conciliation and Arbitration, CUP, Cambridge.

Isaac, Joe (2011), 'The Difficulty of Quantitative Cross-country Comparisons of Wage-fixing Systems', Australian Bulletin of Labour, vol. 37, pp. 217-229.

Keynes, J. M. (1936), The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money, Cambridge, Macmillan, London.

Lye, Jenny N. and McDonald, Ian M. (2004), 'The Effectiveness of Incomes Policies, in Australia Bargaining and Inflation Targeting Enterprise' Australian Economic Papers, vol. 43, pp. 21-38.

Lye, Jenny N. and McDonald, Ian M. (2006), 'Union Power and Australia's Inflation Barrier 1965:4 to 2003:3', Australian Journal of Labour Economics, vol. 9, pp. 287-304.

Noakes, B. J. (1981), 'Incomes Policy: An Employer Perspective', in Hancock, Keith (ed.), Incomes Policy in Australia, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Sydney, pp. 259-271.

Schmitt, John and Mitukiewicz, Alexandra (2011), Politics Matter: Changes in Unionisation Rates in Rich Countries 1960-2011, Centre for Economic and Policy Research.

Sheehan, Peter (1981), 'Incomes Policy: An Employer Perspective', in Hancock, Keith (ed.), Incomes Policy in Australia, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Sydney, pp. 141-170.

Terry, Chris(1983), Personal Income Tax Indexation, Australian Tax Research Foundation, Sydney.

Joe Isaac (1)

The University of Melbourne

(1) Department of Management and Marketing, The University of Melbourne. This article is based on a paper given at the Symposium in Honour of Professor Ian McDonald at The University of Melbourne on 15 February 2012. I thank Peter Gahan for his assistance in the preparation of the graphs.

(2) The number of person days lost per 1000 employees has fallen progressively from about 700 in the early 1970s to about 50 since 2000.

(3) Between 1954-55 and 1973-74, the average tax rate on taxable incomes of $1500, $3000 and $6000 (at constant 1974-74 prices) rose by 73, 45 and 38 per cent respectively. Terry(1983), Table 3.1. Average Weekly Earnings (per employed male unit) for December 1973 was $120.

(4) Wage Fixing Principles Case, 7 June 1978, Print D7262, p. 10

(5) National Wage Case 1974, Print C769, p. 12

(6) It should be noted that Keynes did not disagree with the basis of Pigou's analysis of the demand for labour, although he was critical of the absence of a distinction between micro and macro analysis. He said: 'In emphasising our point of departure from the classical system, we must not overlook an important point of agreement ... with a given organisation, equipment and technique, real wages and the volume of output (and hence employment) are uniquely correlated so that, in general, an increase in employment can only occur to the accompaniment of a decline in the rate of real wages. Thus I am not disputing this vital fact which the classical economists have (rightly) asserted as indefeasible' (Keynes 1936, p. 17). His difficulty was with Pigou's supply side.

(7) A small portion of the rise in real wages may have been cyclical--it is a feature of downturns that the share of wages rises. But in this case, the downturn was preceded and accompanied by substantial money wage increases which must be held mainly responsible for the large increase in real wages.

(8) RBA Statistical Bulletins for earnings and CPI.

(9) ABS Treasury model data base.

(10) National Wage Case Decision, 31July 1981, Print E7300, p. 2.
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Title Annotation:Invited Article
Author:Isaac, Joe
Publication:Australian Bulletin of Labour
Article Type:Abstract
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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