T. A. Jackson

Wages and Wonderment

Source: The Communist, May 21, 1921.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

“I had a grandmother—she kept a donkey
And when that donkey saw me he was sad,
And you are sad, my publiv”—H. Smith

NO word is more often used than this of “wages.” No word is less understood. Did but the workers know its full and frightful significance it would, with all that it implies, be banished from the earth for ever.

* * * * * *

To one who was lately a hero and who now waits in anguished expectancy for a sight of the sign, “Hands Wanted!”—who, while counting the stripes on his medal-ribbons as a substitute for dinner, yearns anticipatory of the day when he shall once again handle a packet containing sundry mysterious metallic discs padded with printed extracts from those ever-popular authors, Bradbury and Fisher, this will seem a hard saying.

Wages to him are life, and lack of wages death. To abolish them would be, he thinks, to abolish his one hope of salvation here below—the far-off gleams of a brighter day to come. He dreams of “pay-day,” of the grand parade with the “missus” into the market, the inspection of the beef and the boots and the butter and of their prices—for upon the size of these depends the extent of his ability to consume the things upon which they are affixed. To him, wages mean “grub,” and “grub is life”—as St. John would have said if he had remembered it.

What the unemployed hero has before him is the need to live. He knows of wages as a means to living, and knows and cares nothing of any other aspect from which they may be viewed.

* * * * * *

It is a common delusion that wages are a payment for work done. If they were this, then to the worker would go the full market price of his product. To the miner would go the full selling price of the coal less only the cost of maintaining the railwaymen, transport workers and others incidental to the transfer of coal from pit to grate or furnace. To the engineer would go the price of his product—to the agricultural labourer his. To the worker would go the whole produce of his toil, and there would be none left for profits, dividends or other forms of outdoor relief to parasite idlers. The fact that the workers are a class—clearly identified under that name—establishes the fact that the shirkers also are a class—even though it be “bad form” so to describe them.

It is clear, then, that the wage of the worker is a part, and only a part, of his own product. And it allows that no delusion could be more pitiful than that of the old-style Trade Unionist—“A FAIR DAY’S WAGE for a FAIR DAY’S WORK.” Any “wage” bring only a part, is an injustice—an unfairness—to those whose labour has begotten the whole. Anything fair to the worker as producer would be unfair to the “owner-employer” as appropriator. From the nature of the relation, employer and worker, there can be no such thing as “fairness” about the reward of the latter.

* * * * * *

A history of the struggles of the miners would demonstrate this clearly. For long they sought in a spirit of fairness to let wages be governed by the selling price of coal. The year 1874 (the blackest year in the history of British Trade Unionism, by the way) was taken as a basis, and any alteration in the selling price of coal governed the extent of the percentage to be paid over and above that basis. Should the price rise, a percentage was added; should it fall, so fell wages. Now, it must be obvious that when the miner had the advantage of an increase his joy would induce him to hew his very inside out in order to “make hay while the sun shone.” As prices (other things being equal) rise or fall with the relation between quantity required and the quantity available, the more the miner speeded up his output the lower fell his reward per ton. The more he did the less he got. It was in face of this fact that the “Geordies” adopted the now famous watchword, “Ca’ Canny!”

More recently an attempt has been made to govern wages by output—to reward an increased output by a species of bonus-increase of wage. Here, again the disadvantageous situation of the worker rendered the “fairness” illusory. He had control over only one of the essentials of an increased output—his muscles. When an increased production threatened for any reason the interest of the owner-controller, it was quite easy for him to so manipulate working-places, supply of trucks, and other things that the output fell, despite all the worker could do to increase it. And the blame for the fall of output was put upon the worker.

The latest suggestion is to calculate wages upon profits. Not, be it noted, upon the actual difference between the workers’ product and his reward, but upon the difference between the workers’ reward and what is left of his product after rents, royalties, interests upon capital, taxes, and other costs (decided by the boss) have been deducted. Here, again, it will be seen that the boss, being in control, has it in his power to so manipulate things that he will seem to be getting little, even though the worker is robbed of much.

While the boss owns and controls, there is nothing left for the worker but the subordinate rôle of a part of the mechanism which ministers to his greed and his glory. Under no circumstances can a wage be fair.

* * * * * *

It is often suggested nowadays that the wage should be governed by the “cost of living.” And so often during the war period were increases of money-wage demanded because of the rapid rise in the cost of living, that this has come to be a fixed idea in many minds. One has only to ask the meaning of “living” in this connection to expose its brutal villainy. The Chinese coolie has taught himself to live upon a handful of rice a day—his standard of living is the price of a handful of rice. If the British worker accepts this as a principle, he lays himself open to all the old attacks upon his extravagance, wastefulness, drunkenness, etc., with which we used to be assailed until decent men were driven to drink as a protest. It is, to the “Daily Mail,” an outrage that the worker should keep a dog, to the “Morning Post,” that he should buy his daughter a piano, to the “bloody old ‘Times’” (as Cobbett called it!} if he expects anything better than King Nebuchadnezzar, “who went and ate grass.” To expect what is “living” to the Duke of Northumberland would be seditious extravagance in a more proletarian.

The upshot of the whole matter is that the worker, while he depends upon a wage, is within a little, just where the boss likes to push him.

* * * * * *

It may be urged that I have no consideration for the rights of the thrifty and enterprising employer. Let me answer in a parable—not from scripture—I have hidden my Bible on hearing the fate which befell that of the Editor of THE COMMUNIST. Hear ye the tale of Richard Turpin, Martyr.

Richard Turpin (better known as “Dick”) was sober and thrifty, therefore he saved money. Do you cavil at his sobriety or make merry at his thrift? Having saved money, it was his and he had a right to do what he liked with his own. He chose to invest it in productive machinery—to wit, a pistol, some bullets, and powder. Taking these, his “capital,” he proceeded to put them to a profitable use. He placed himself in the highway in the path of the farmers returning from market, and offered them a Free Contract—either their money or their life. If they did not choose to part with the one, very well! they could part with the other! They surrendered the money. Was not Dick entitled to a “return on the capital he had invested”? Of course he was. And, would you believe it? A beastly Bolshevist-minded generation “pinched” his pistol and hanged, him by the neck until he was dead!

Te moral of which is—

* * * * * *

On second thoughts, having the fear of God before mine eyes, and being minded of the E.P.A.—there is no moral!