I was recently asked whether one justification for the minimum wage might be a lack of genuine bargaining power among unskilled workers, as compared to high-skilled workers. The argument implicit in the question was that a specific unskilled worker can give his employer no reason to retain him in particular, and so the employer can afford to push down the unskilled worker’s wage to a ridiculously low amount. At the same time, the unskilled worker cannot find any opportunities to work elsewhere. I do not think that such suppositions are realistic, however.
Let us compare unskilled workers with workers who have specialized skill sets. High-skilled workers do indeed have more bargaining power within their specific places of employment, as they are more difficult to replace and more valuable to their employers. However, they also have fewer competitors to whom they could go if their current employment situation does not turn out to their liking. This is because a narrower range of employers would demand a worker with a certain specific skill set than would demand a generic unskilled worker. An unskilled worker can earn his maximum current possible income working in, say, a factory, a fast-food restaurant, or a custodial job for a variety of employers. A skilled accountant, on the other hand, can only earn his maximum current possible income working as an accountant, if that is his most valuable skill according to the market.
Both the skilled and the unskilled worker will tend to earn the marginal product of their labor – i.e., the amount of value that their labor contributes to the product they create – in a truly free market. The skilled worker will earn this because of his high bargaining power. The unskilled worker will earn this because he has so many alternatives with regard to employers. If the current employer does not pay the unskilled worker his marginal product of labor, numerous other employers will try to bid away the work of that person by offering slightly higher wages. Say, for instance, unskilled worker X has a marginal product of labor of $5 per hour, but he is only paid $1 at his present job with Employer A. Employer B sees a lucrative opportunity if he could hire X at $2 per hour and keep $3 of X’s hourly product for himself. So X is hired by B at $2 per hour. Now Employer C sees a lucrative opportunity if he could hire X at $3 per hour and keep $2 of X’s hourly product for himself. So X is hired by C at $3 per hour. This will tend to keep happening until X is hired by an employer who pays him his marginal product and therefore creates a situation where X cannot be bid away by a competitor offering higher wages.
This is a dynamic process, and it takes time to attain. In the meantime X’s skills might be improving as a result of on-the-job training and experience – so his marginal product might increase still further, and “equilibrium” might never be fully attained. Nonetheless, the market process functions to relentlessly approach equilibrium by means of the perceptiveness of entrepreneurs, motivated by profit and desiring to out-compete their rivals by means of greater perceptiveness and by offering better terms to employees and customers.
I do not think there is ever truly a situation where a worker has “no choice” about where to work. Moreover, I do not think there is ever a situation where a healthy human being is forever condemned to earn a low wage. A low initial wage is an excellent opportunity for many workers to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to earn higher wages in the future. There is no better job training than training on the job – as every job I have ever had demonstrated to me. By prohibiting people from working for pay below a certain level, the minimum wage laws deprive many workers of the opportunity to gain such invaluable experience.