Labour Leaders and Wages

Of all the comments, discussions and cartoons set going by the leader of the Opposition’s speech at Ashton-under-Lyne, not any that have come before this writer’s notice have had any¬thing to say about this part (I quote from the “Daily Telegraph’s” report) :—

“I believe in combination for the purpose of raising the conditions of labour, and I believe it has done a great deal less than it ought to have done for this reason, as I think, that from the moment the trade unions were seized for political purposes, from that moment their influence in their real object disappeared. Is not that natural ? If trade unions are to make the best bargains with employers, the men who lead these unions must understand the conditions of the trade as well as the employers understand them. They must know when to make demands, and they must know when it is useless to make demands. To understand any trade in that way we require the best intellect which trade unions can produce. But how can it be exercised for that purpose if the ambition of leaders of trade unions is not to direct these unions, but to go to Westminster and pose there as statesmen, and settle the destinies of the whole country.
“It is for that reason, as I believe, that trade unionism has done so little to help the conditions of labour during the last ten years, and it is for that reason, also, I think, tkat the leaders have lost their influence over trade unions, and obviously unless trade unions are disciplined their power of negotiation is gone.”

The idea is certainly very quaint. Trade union officials are to convert themselves into labour-power merchants and slave brokers ; to watch the fluctuations of the “labour market,” to ask a bigger price when they can, and inversely, when the market is against them, presumably, to accept a smaller one. The study of the market in this case is to be so continuous that no time is to be available for political purposes, notwithstanding that merchants in other commodities are eminently eligible as statesmen.

The suggestion that the influence of the men’s leaders has waned since they have entered upon political activities is exceedingly doubtful. We must bear in mind that to a great extent the T. U. officials already function as brokers, and any lessening of their influence is more directly traceable to their activities as such than as politicians.

The arrangements made and signed between masters’ and men’s representatives have been frequently matters of hot discussion in the unions, and accusations of betraying the men are not unknown. Suspicions of the use the leaders make of their power as brokers more frequently undermine the faith in those leaders than any gyrations on the political field can possibly do. On the economic side the effect of such an agreement is immediately and directly felt ; on the political side if a workers’ representative functions as a capitalist representative, the immediate effect is but to strengthen, an already-existing majority.

To us the waning influence of the labour leader is the most hopeful sign of the labour unrest, indicative as it is of the awakening of consciousness soon to ripen into Socialism, and a jealous vigilance over the leader for a repetition of the double-dealing engineered in the past, too often with impunity. The reason of so little improvement having taken place in working-class conditions during the last ten years will have to be sought in another direction. It is a long story, and readers of the SOCIALIST STANDARD are perhaps familiar with it. It is known as the Law of Wages, fairly well understood by the Socialist, and knocks the bottom out of all reforms, whether of the Liberal, Tory, or Labour brand. It is recognised in essence by the suggestion that the T.U. official should qualify as an expert in order to manipulate the market. It rests on that recognition of the commodity form of labour. For when the expert T.U. dealer has driven his commodities to market, higgled price over them with buyer, drawn his commission, and signed the contract, there still has to be found the point around which the fluctuations of the market oscillate.

When a merchant takes a load of potatoes to market and higgles price with the buyer, we read in the next day’s market reports that, the supply exceeding the demand, prices were cut to such and such a figure, or inversely, the demand being keen and the supply slack, prices rose to such and such a figure. But if the price of potatoes fluctuate between (say) 7s. and 13s., according to the excess of supply or demand, the reason for it fluctuating between these figures and not some others, say 27s. and 33s., has still to be found. That reason is the cost of production.

As with potatoes, so with labour-power, and so with any other commodity that ever went to market. The higgling of the market can only operate upon the cost of production, the point at which prices rest when supply and demand balance each other, or equilibrate, as the economists say.

In the case of labour-power—the case in which the workman is very directly concerned—that cost of producing his capacity to work will vary with the degree of skill required in a given trade, but will always represent the standard of subsistence needed to enable him to keep in a fit condition to work, and to develop the neces¬sary skill during the probationary period, and to maintain the supply of such labour by rearing a family.

The factors entering into the category in some trades are necessarily complex, and dim historical and social survivals have tended to smooth off the harsher corners of the economic law, but the law is in no way invalidated thereby.

Most conclusions can be checked by inverting the syllogism—by inducting as well as deducting. In this case we have not only the theoretic argument, but the statistical tabulations of several social investigators. The labours of Booth, Rowntree, Horsfall, and Mann (Harold, not Tom), approaching the problem from the other end and tabulating the cost of living and the incomes of families in their different parts of the country, prove the one to approximate to the other, incidentally throwing , considerable light on the vicissitudes of the worker’s life, and marking out, as on a chart, his alternate journey above and below the poverty line.

In the case of commodities other than human the same check holds good, the book-keeping of the producer telling him what margin of profit he is making or when he is being compelled, by the exigencies of a specially unfavourable mar¬ket, to sell at a loss—that is, below his cost of production. The better equipmen of a rival, reducing cost of production, may either increase the margin of profit of the one or reduce that of the other, according as the average is affected ; the ultimate determinant being the socially necessary human labour-power required in production.

Thus we see by a brief and cursory examination that the conditions of labour must remain at or about the poverty line during the continuance of the wages By stem, and that no tinkering on the part of reform politicians can get away from the miserable fact. The relation between the wages system and capitalism must belong to another article, but here I want to make an observation on the importance of politics in connection with a further quotation from the same speech.

“In the old days, when absolute power was in the hands of kings, ambitious nen, in order to obtain power, played upon the weaknesses of kings, and flattered them.
“The power has changed. It is now in the hands of the working classes of this country, if they choose to exercise it, but human nature has not changed. Men with the same ambitions, animated by the same motives, try to obtain them in the same way, but now they flatter not kings, but the people.”

From this we see admitted by the Tory leader what some of our “friends” would deny, viz., that the power is in the hands of the working class. So, given a working-class understanding the working-class position and recognising the fu¬tility of reform ; seeing, with noon-day clearness, the ease with which capitalism can be abolished by the exercise of their admitted power with the intelligence born of such understanding, we shall move, as with seven-league boots, toward the Social Revolution and the establishment of Socialism.

D. K.

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