Answers to Correspondents
The Wages of Agricultural Workers
A correspondent writes as follows: —
In the January issue of the SOCIALIST STANDARD you state that it has been estimated that as many as twenty-five per cent. of agricultural workers are being paid less than the minimum wage legally applicable to them. Will you please explain how this information was obtained and why it has not been used to enforce the law?
T. R. V. Andrews.
Minimum rates of wages are fixed in the various districts, and it is an offence under the Agricultural Wages Act to pay less than the minimum. But there is a great gap between specifying a wage and enforcing its payment. In 1937 the Minister of Agriculture instituted 83 prosecutions of farmers for non-payment of the minimum. The Courts imposed £314 10s. 0d, in fines and awarded. £2,020 as arrears of . wages to the workers concerned (see Reply by Minister of Agriculture, Hansard, February 21st, 1938). These few cases are, however, only those which came to light. The difficulty faced by the Ministry’s inspectors, and by the National Union of Agricultural Workers, always is that when agricultural workers are faced with the risk of losing their job, and perhaps being turned out of their cottage as well, they are most reluctant to disclose the fact that they are underpaid. Any estimate of the extent of underpayment is necessarily based on inadequate information. The figure 25 per cent. was given some years ago by a writer on agriculture, but the source of the information has for the moment been mislaid. The general problem, however, of workers who are underpaid; but will not risk taking action is well known to trade union organisers.
Is the S.P.G B. afraid to criticise Trade Unionism
A correspondent, who gives no address because he is “on tramp,” asks an unusual question. His letter and our reply are given below : —
I have become a reader of the SOCIALIST STANDARD, but I am told by a great many people that the S.P.G.B. are afraid to criticise Trade Unionism, because the Party would become unpopular., I do not know the S.P. view concerning this. I maintain that if Trade Unionism were universally adopted it could only result in failure because of the fact that wages are adjusted to the cost of living and vice-versa, therefore wages, however high, would not raise the standard of living. I fully admit that the Trade .Unions as they stand at present do benefit their members, but only at the expense of the community, as increased costs raise the cost of living. These facts prove the fallacy of Trade Unionism. If there is any truth in the statements made by some people as regards S.P.G.B. members all being staunch Trade Unionists, then the Party will have a hard job in trying to explain these facts away.
J. B. Marshall.
Our correspondent’s question is unusual, because a very frequent complaint made by critics of the S.P.G.B. has been that we are unduly critical of trade unionism if not actually hostile.
The truth is that the S.P.G.B. recognises the value of trade unionism in resisting the constant pressure of the capitalists on the workers’ standard of living, but. recognises, too, that trade unions are in the main concerned with the day-to-day struggle within capitalism and not with the task of overthrowing capitalism. This is necessarily the case because a trade union has to accept to its ranks all workers who are willing to join for its limited purposes. A trade union which restricted its membership to those who seek the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of Socialism would—in present circumstances—be a very ineffective body, because it would be excluding a majority of the workers.
While supporting trade unionism, the S.P.G.B. need not, and does not, support or defend those speeches and actions of trade unions and their officials which are contrary to working class interests and Socialism.
Our correspondent is advised to read the SOCIALIST STANDARD regularly. He will see the Socialist attitude to trade unions frequently explained and elaborated.
Our correspondent argues that trade unions are to be condemned because higher wages mean higher prices and are at the expense of the “community.” This is an error which has on occasion been used by the capitalists to dissuade workers from joining trade unions or taking part in strikes. The attitude of the employers is sufficient to show that they at least are under no such illusion. If employers thought that higher wages can simply be passed on in the form of higher prices they would not resist trade union demands. The employers know better. They know that higher wages are a direct cut into profits—hence their resistance to such demands.
Although wages are affected by changes in the cost of living, the relationship is not an automatic one. Workers have to struggle to raise wages when prices rise and have to struggle to prevent wages from falling when prices are stable or falling.
For an illuminating discussion of the economies of the problem our correspondent should read two pamphlets by Karl Marx, “Wage-Labour and Capital” and “Value, Price and Profit.”
Mr. Edgar Paul (Northiam).—We have your inquiry about class-consciousness, but are not quite sure what is your point. The more class-conscious the workers are the more inclined they are to reject open and disguised propaganda for capitalism and the more ready they are to put up intelligent resistance to capitalist pressure. It is quite true that workers with little understanding of Socialism will often put up a spirited defence against capitalist exploitation, but a defiant attitude alone will not suffice to get rid of capitalism.
Perhaps you will elaborate the point.
Replies to many correspondents are unavoidably held over, owing to pressure on space.