WHAT IS THE WORKING CLASS?
The great majority of the population have no property. They have no means of living except by working for others. They must seek out a master. They must find owners of factories, mines, farms, etc., willing to employ them.
The working class is that body of the population which does not possess wealth, and are therefore forced to work for em¬ployers in order to live.
They must get permission from the owners of raw materials, machines, etc., to enter the factories and begin work.
The working class can offer for sale only one thing—their ability to labour. They have no other possession to sell except the energy in their bodies. That force of muscle, nerve and brain is their power to labour.
When a member of the working class goes out to seek a job he finds others like himself equally anxious for work.
WHO ARE THE PRODUCERS?
The employers need workers to produce things which can be sold. There is only one way to make these things and that is to apply the energy of the workers to the raw-materials of nature. By altering the size, shape and place of raw materials, wealth is produced in its many forms, such as we see around us. Only one class does this work, and so we know that the wealth of the modern world is the product of working-class labour.
The employers, therefore, must hire workers. They may be hired by the day, week, month, etc. They will receive a certain sum of money called a wage. This is the price of the power of mind and body they sell to the employer.
THE WORKERS’ COMMODITY.
The perishable nature of the workers’ power to labour drives them to accept the terms of some employer or other. This labour force of the worker is like any other article of merchandise. It is offered for sale on the market. The labour market is like the meat market or wheat or egg market. The articles offered for sale have a price, which changes from day to day. Labour power varies in price according to the supply available and the demand for it from the buyers—the employers. If there are more wage workers seeking jobs than are needed by the masters, the price of labour power—wages—will fall. If there are few workers and many jobs, the price of labour power will tend to rise.
But, unlike most other articles for sale, labour power cannot be put on the shelf until a buyer is willing to pay the price asked. A chair can be stored, but labour power will suffer loss of vigour if the necessary nourishment is not obtained, and will cease entirely if the body receives no food or warmth.
REAL WAGES AND NOMINAL WAGES.
The wage is the money name for the working power of the individual. It may be 5 dollars per day in Winnipeg or three pounds per week in London. It may be 10s. a day at one time in London and 15s. a day at another time. This price or money name for the use of the flesh and blood of the worker is just the nominal wage. The real wage is what the money wage will buy. The worker may find that his 10s. daily wage to-day will buy less than his 5s. formerly did. How much of the necessaries of life the wage will purchase is, therefore, the real test that decides what the money wage is worth.
WHAT IS LABOUR POWER?
The wage worker does not sell the work he performs. He is not in a position to sell that. He does not own the work or labour he puts into the raw materials supplied by the employer. Immediately the worker begins to work in the shop he gives up to the employer his labour. He cannot claim any of his work. His labour no longer belongs to him. The wage, therefore, is not the price of the labour or work performed by the wage earner. The wage is the price of his capacity or ability to work. This is properly called labour power. For a certain wage he places this labour power at the employer’s disposal for a certain time. He uses his muscle, brain, and nerves to make raw materials more valuable by fashioning them to the useful forms required.
WHAT DETERMINES WAGES?
How are these wages regulated? What decides the price of labour power? The competition in the labour market only decides the changes in the price. These ups and downs in a worker’s wage centre round a certain figure. This real wage or price of labour power is decided just as the price of all commodities are determined—by the cost of production. The labour power of the worker is the power to use the body and mind, and is therefore inseparable from him. The cost of production of the worker’s labour power is the cost of producing the things necessary to his existence and with which he maintains himself.
The cost of production of labour power is the cost of the food, clothing, shelter, fuel, etc., upon which the worker depends for his life. It also covers the cost of bringing up his children to replace him in the labour market and secure a new generation of wage workers. It includes also the cost of the training of the “skilled” worker to cover the expense involved in the greater time needed to produce the skilled ability.
THE COST OF LIVING BASIS.
The money wages are different in different countries and cities and differ in one place from time to time. But all over the world the real wage of the worker, the buying power of the money wages, is based upon the cost of living. What it costs the worker to live, according to the accepted standard of living, will be the average wage. That is true of the workers whose standard of living is based upon a rice diet and is equally true of the workers here whose activity demands other food. That is why leading employers are pointing out to the workers of Britain that they must lower their standard of living in order to compete with France and Germany. This artful plea is an attempt on “patriotic” grounds to get the workers to accept less wages.
PAID AND UNPAID LABOUR.
The worker generally receives the value of his labour power. Its value being the time necessary to produce the necessaries of life to live upon while he works. But the worker produces a greater value than that represented by his wages. If he works eight hours per day, part of the time he will be replacing for the employer the wages he receives and most part of the time he will be performing labour for which he receives nothing. This unpaid labour is the surplus taken by the employer and is commonly called profit.
Whether you work in a private concern or for a nationally owned enterprise you will find the above to be the position of the wage workers.
THE RELATIVE WAGE.
Wages, therefore, represent only a portion of the wealth produced by the worker. If you compare the part paid in wages and the surplus taken by the employers, you can see the relation between the worker’s “share” and the total product. The proportion between them shows what the relative wage is, that is to say, what relation the wages of the working class bears to the total wealth produced by them.
Due to the introduction of machinery, the application of science to industry, more scientific shop management, speeding up, piece-work, and other methods, the “share” of the worker gets less and his relative wage falls. These same causes result in rendering “skilled” workers more and more unnecessary. The war showed how quickly “mechanics” could be made, and so the worker tends to become a machine-minder and no longer does his wage include the cost of the training of the skilled worker.
HOW THE WORKERS “SHARE” IS REDUCED.
Women and even children are continually used to displace men, and along with the greater use of machinery and weeding out of the less efficient, the competition for jobs grows greater and wage cutting becomes easy. The army of unemployed outside is used by the employer to reduce the wages of those inside, and so fear of being workless causes the workers to submit to wage reductions and to sign agreements. The workers have little choice. They do not enter into a free contract, for the menace of starvation for themselves and others prevents free bargaining. The wage contract is not an agreement between equals. It is a penalty enforced upon a propertyless worker by a propertied employer.
THE CEASELESS STRUGGLE.
Combination amongst workers is necessary and useful in the constant struggles of the workers. But most of these fights are attempts to make the worker’s wage cover the increased cost of living.
A wage is a badge of servitude and while the wage system remains the employers will act as they do to-day. They will use their wealth and political power to ensure the subjection of the worker and the smallness, of his “share.” The unions are trying to effect changes in wages, but not the abolition of the wages system. Even higher wages and shorter hours result in speeding up the workers more and the use of more and better machinery and the careful selection of the most efficient workers, so that the employers are compensated for the increased wages by greater output. The wage is the price of a commodity possessed by the worker, and in selling his labour power to the master the worker is really selling himself piecemeal.
His great trouble just now is that many employers won’t buy the workers’ “one ewe lamb “—his ability to work.
(Socialist Standard¸ November 1925)