The Wages Question at the Trades Union Congress
Mr. Pugh, in his presidential address to the Trades Union Congress, was no more practical in his ideas than presidents of former years have been. Ideals, platitudes and “philosophy” are poor stuff for those workers whose time is mainly taken up in the struggle to obtain a living. Such men and women need a message that is easily understood; one that explains the nature of their struggle; why they are poor; how they can free themselves from their poverty.
Sentimental ideals are useless when the business is to explain to the workers why it is that, although they produce the wealth, they remain poor. If Mr. Pugh once admits that the possession of wealth by a class that does not work can only be the result of robbery or exploitation of the class that does; the next obvious thing is to explain how the exploitation is effected. This may, or may not, be beyond Mr. Pugh, but it is part of the knowledge required by the workers before it is possible for them to take any steps to shake off their poverty.
Mr. Pugh, in his remarks, associated himself with the campaign of the Independent Labour Party for a living wage. Marx, Engels, Kautsky, and others, have repeatedly shown that the wages system is the basis of capitalism. The capitalist buys labour power and pockets the difference between the value of the workers’ product and the wage he pays them. It is obvious, therefore, that while the wages system remains, exploitation must continue. Notwithstanding this fact, which shows the necessity for the abolition of the wages system, Mr. Pugh can only suggest to the Congress that they should “examine in the light of new theories the whole basis and application of the traditional wages policy and methods of determining wages which the trade unions have followed.”
Whatever Mr. Pugh’s “new theories” may be, he will discover when he comes to apply them that trade unions can only “determine” wages in their favour when they have the power to inflict loss on the employers by withholding their labour power. The strike is the most effective weapon possessed by the organised workers. The anarchists and industrial unionists advocate other methods, though they have never proved their efficacy, and Mr. Pugh would doubtless hesitate to learn from such sources. True the strike is seldom successful to-day, because circumstances are rarely favourable to the workers. Even when they are, the treachery of their own leaders often baulks them of victory.
The struggle between capitalists and workers over wages is a one-sided business; the capitalists are easily the stronger. They do not feel the pinch of hunger while their mines or factories are closed down. They have always the armed forces of the State on their side to compel the workers to starve in an orderly manner. With the miners lock-out and a farcical general strike hanging over the Congress like a wet blanket, emphasising the impotence of the workers when pitted against the capitalists, Mr. Pugh romances about laying down “scientific principles for the division of the product of industry.”
Such talk is childish while the capitalist method of division holds the field, and the capitalist class controls the educational and physical forces necessary for its maintenance. Such principles could only be applied with the consent of the ruling class, which is inconceivable, unless it were along the lines of Mr. Pugh’s last suggestion, which is as follows: “The equitable distribution of spending power in relation to family needs.”
If the idea is to take from the Rothschilds, Fords, Leverhulmes, etc., in order to level up the cotton operatives and miners, how is it proposed to squeeze the former? If the idea is merely to pool wages, salaries, etc., without an increase of the total amount, there is nothing to prevent trade union leaders and Labour M.P.’s starting right away.
It is only because these leaders are separated so widely from the rank and file, and the circumstances of their everyday life, that they can talk such nonsense without fear of exposure. The unreality of the whole business in its relation to the workers is emphasised by the New Leader (10/9/26), which comments on the address as follows : “He gave in short an enlightened lead to the industrial movement, which we have every hope that it will follow by setting up a commission of inquiry.”
Needless to say, neither the commission — the orthodox capitalist method of shelving awkward questions — the General Council, nor the T.U.C., will follow up the subject by analysing the capitalist system and laying bare the facts of their exploitation before the workers. Working-class leaders are after positions with high wages; they will never tell the workers that they must abolish the wages system.