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Thanks to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Len Boselovic, I got dragged (willingly, to be sure) into a dust-up about manufacturing wages that recently broke out between the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and the National Association of Manufacturers.

Len did an excellent job of explaining how the former organization could come out with a report lamenting wage decline in manufacturing and the sector’s steady transformation into a low-wage employer, while the latter could respond by insisting that American industry “continues to be a pathway to the middle class.” As is often the case, it depends largely on which data you look at.

But it’s still worth elaborating on some points that Len was only able to touch on, especially since all data aren’t created equal. In the first place, the NELP report really should have looked at benefits as well as wages. They’ve been integral parts of compensation packages for workers throughout the economy for decades, and powerfully effect families’ living standards and financial health. I’m also still scratching my head as to why the NELP omitted white-collar manufacturing workers from its survey. They represent nearly half of all U.S. manufacturing employment.

But there’s also less to the NAM’s retort than meets the eye. As Len pointed out, the total compensation figures cited by its chief economist, Chad Moutray, aren’t adjusted for inflation. That’s a main reason I focus in my own analyses of manufacturing pay on wages – for which inflation-adjusted data is kept by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s also true that total compensation (as measured by the BLS’ Employment Cost Index), is up more during the current recovery for all manufacturing workers (by 11.91 percent) than for all private sector workers (by 11.14 percent). But in addition to being unadjusted for inflation, these ECI figures are only available going back to 2001. Therefore, they don’t permit any examinations or comparisons of longer-term trends – which for real wages, show multi-decade stagnation.

In addition, given how free many companies have felt to cut pensions in particular, it’s fair to ask how much longer manufacturing’s benefits package will remain so impressive. And finally, the NELP deserves credit for spotlighting the growing use by domestic manufacturers of temporary workers – whose wages are typically less than those of full-timers, who rarely receive any non-wage benefits at all, and who aren’t included in the manufacturing wage or total compensation data. (They’re considered instead as employees of job placement or temp firms). Obviously, if these workers were reclassified, manufacturing pay would be lower whatever measurement is used.

Bottom line? It’s still valid to claim that manufacturing’s rebound from an horrific recession has taken place largely on workers’ backs. Until domestic industry starts boosting production while raising, not cutting, real wages and overall compensation, talk of a manufacturing renaissance, or any regained competitiveness, will remain a grim joke.

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