Many Americans, perhaps a substantial majority, still believe that, irrespective of any problems they may have caused, labor unions are fundamentally an institution that exists in the vital self-interest of wage earners. Indeed, many believe that it is labor unions that stand between the average wage earner and a life of subsistence wages, exhausting hours of work, and horrific working conditions.
Labor unions and the general public almost totally ignore the essential role played by falling prices in achieving rising real wages. They see only the rise in money wages as worthy of consideration. Indeed, in our environment of chronic inflation, prices that actually do fall are relatively rare.
Nevertheless, the only thing that can explain a rise in real wages throughout the economic system is a fall in prices relative to wages. And the only thing that achieves this is an increase in production per worker. More production per worker — a higher productivity of labor — serves to increase the supply of goods and services produced relative to the supply of labor that produces them. In this way, it reduces prices relative to wages and thereby raises real wages and the general standard of living.
What raises money wages throughout the economic system is not what is responsible for the rise in real wages. Increases in money wages are essentially the result just of the increase in the quantity of money and resulting increase in the overall volume of spending in the economic system. In the absence of a rising productivity of labor, the increase in money and spending would operate to raise prices by as much or more than it raised wages. This outcome is prevented only by the fact that at the same time that the quantity of money and volume of spending are increasing, the output per worker is also increasing, with the result that prices rise by less than wages. A fall in prices is still present in the form of prices being lower than they would have been had only an increase in the quantity of money and volume of spending been operative.
With relatively minor exceptions, real wages throughout the economic system simply do not rise from the side of higher money wages. Essentially, they rise only from the side of a greater supply of goods and services relative to the supply of labor and thus from prices being lower relative to wages. The truth is that the means by which the standard of living of the individual wage earner and the individual businessman and capitalist is increased, and the means by which that of the average wage earner in the economic system is increased, are very different. For the individual, it is the earning of more money. For the average wage earner in the economic system, it is the payment of lower prices.
What this discussion shows is that the increase in money wages that labor unions seek is not at all the source of rising real wages and that the source of rising real wages is in fact a rising productivity of labor, which always operates from the side of falling prices, not rising money wages.