1930s >> 1939 >> no-424-december-1939

Editorial: Wages in War-Time

Not only in a military sense has this been a “strange war.” It has been strangely disarming on the home front also. The politicians and employers and the trade union officials have all remarked on the “good relationship” existing between masters and men.

The Government gave orders that the Departments of State were to seek co-operation with the unions. No big strikes are threatened, and conciliation and arbitration appear to be the order of the day. Primed with the experience gained in the last war, it must seem to those in authority that no cloud can arise to darken this fair scene. Have not the Government declared against profiteering and against a serious rise of prices? And has not Mr. Arthur Greenwood answered that the “trade union leaders have made no attempt to make class capital out of this war”? (Daily Express, November 17th, 1939).

Can anything go amiss with so happy a union? The answer is that it can and certainly will. Rising prices will break down the seeming harmony. Up to November 1st the cost-of-living, as measured by the Ministry of Labour Index, had risen by 14 points, equivalent to nine per cent., or a loss of purchasing power of 1s. 9½d. in the £. To meet this rise some four million out of 18 million workers have obtained war-time increases of wages; and instantly the Press, the City editors, and the economists—with the politicians waiting discreetly in the background—have struck a stout blow against higher wages and in defence of a lowered standard of living. Mr. Keynes, in his scheme for compulsory saving (i.e., the stoppage of part of wages for payment after the war), stated the case in full detail (The Times, November 14th and 15th), and although his plan has not been accepted, the problem as he stated it remains. With more workers at work there will be “a demand for labour in excess of the supply,” wages will rise, and overtime will be worked—in short, the normal peace-time capitalist check on wage increases will not operate.

The working class, as a whole, will have more money to spend just at a time when it is considered essential that productive capacity should be concentrated on war purposes. If workers have this additional money, and spend it, the result will either be a shortage of the goods workers buy or a big rise of prices—a shortage if the prices are kept down by Government action; a rise of prices if they are not kept down by such action.

Mr. Keynes’ remedy is to defer payment of part wages until after the war and thus lower the worker’s standard of living while the war is on; in his own words: “It is a proposal . . . nearly as good as a 10 per cent fall in real wages, while doing no lasting injury to working-class consumption.”

To minimise the effect of the rise of prices the Ministry of Food (Manchester Guardian, November 17th) has already set about showing how a rise in prices can be almost an advantage to the workers. If, says the Ministry, a worker buys margarine because of the increased price of butter he gets “a much, cheaper article, say one-third of the price of butter. The change-over may mean some sacrifice of personal taste, but it is the result of war conditions, and the consumer gets from his lower expenditure on margarine the same vitamin qualities as from his previous expenditure on butter.”

Applied all round, this kind of adaptation will, of course, enable the workers to live more cheaply— on a lower standard of living.

Precisely the same argument was used in the last war against workers who complained that wage increases always lagged far behind the rise of the cost-of-living index figures.

But will workers be satisfied to accept quietly a lowered standard of living, either through higher prices or compulsory saving? Or will they be content to make up their wages by working overtime or working more intensely on piece-rate systems and thus suffering in health and vitality? It can be said with certainty that workers will not. The numerous applications for war-time increases of pay indicate already what will happen—an increasingly tense struggle between workers demanding cost-of-living increases because a still lower standard of living is intolerable, and employers resisting the demands.

As the Economist sadly reflects: —

  So far there is no sign that they [the trade unions] have departed from the attitude that, whatever happens to anybody else, the standard of living of their members must not be touched.—Economist, November 18th.

With the aloofness of the economic expert, to whom workers are just “the labour problem,” this writer cannot see the difference between the rich losing part of their superfluous wealth and the poor losing part of their necessaries of life.

Similarly, The Times’ City Editor (November 20th) shows a characteristic propertied-class attitude in the matter. His criticism of Mr. Keynes is not on the ground that the Keynes’ plan means a lowered standard of living for the workers but that it would not go far enough.

  Nor does he demonstrate how the maintenance of something not much worse than the pre-war standard of working-class consumption is compatible with the present rate of Government expenditure—except by a correspondingly greater reduction in that of other classes of the population. Most of these people readiest to approve such a plan as this have hitherto assumed that the standards of living of no class could be generally maintained in war-time.

Of course the stock argument of such people is that the war is for national aims and all should be prepared to make sacrifice. To which Mr. Greenwood, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, though he supports the war, is constrained to reply that: ‘‘There is too ready an assumption on his (Mr. Keynes’) part that the workers of this country were having a fair share of its wealth, anyway, before the war started.” And the Manchester Guardian pertinently reminds its readers that: “Before the war, Sir William Crawford estimated, eight million people lacked wages sufficient for the bare minimum of food regarded as essential to health by the British Medical Association ” (Manchester Guardian, November 3rd).

So, war or no war, we are back again at the basis of capitalism, the ceaseless struggle between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Not all the academic theorisings of Mr. Keynes and all the honeyed words of the politicians will prevent the struggle from proceeding, with its customary periodic outbursts of industrial strife.

Mr. Churchill may persuade himself that ours is one of the peaceful parliamentary countries “which aim at freedom for the individual and abundance for the mass” (broadcast reproduced in News Chronicle, November 13th), but he cannot dispute the unchallengeable facts of working-class poverty. Nor can Lord Halifax’s assertion that the Allies aim at a new world which “will enlist the co-operation of all peoples on a basis of human equality . . .” hide the fact that within this democracy, or elsewhere under capitalism, vast inequality is the permanent rule.

All of these people may think they are filled with goodwill towards the workers at the moment, but those who are determined to retain capitalism are maintaining a social system which breeds poverty, strife and class hatred, as surely as it breeds war.

Capitalism for the workers will be no different after the war. Mr. Keynes may promise that the deferred wages (if his plan is eventually adopted) will be paid after the war, but vast numbers of workers will then be suffering from the closing down of war production. Already the City Editor of The Times is considering what will happen “if the usual slump supervenes upon this war as it did upon the last . . .” (The Times, November 16th, 1939).

So this is the prospect for the workers. A struggle to resist a lowered standard of living during the war, and after it a post-war slump in which to celebrate victory.