Are The Workers Better Off During The War?
As happened during the last war there is much exaggerated talk about the supposed high wages earned by workers in munition factories and the demand is frequently made that the Government should put a stop to all wage increases or even reduce the level of civilian pay to that of men in the armed Forces. The policy of the Government is, however, the more cautious one of deprecating all-round increases of wages while leaving the various arbitration and negotiating bodies free to sanction wage increases in certain cases, “particularly among comparatively low paid grades and categories of workers, or for adjustment owing to changes in the form, method or volume of production.” This policy of trying to stabilise the general level of wages is linked with the policy of preventing the prices of a number of essential foodstuffs from rising above the present level. To do this large subsidies are paid to producers of such articles as wheat, milk, meat and bacon, and the retail prices are controlled.
As far as it is possible to describe what has taken place with regard to wages and prices, by means of figures, the position is fairly clear. It gives no support whatever to the claim that wages have outstripped the rise in the cost of living. The Ministry of Labour Cost of Living Index shows a rise from 155 in September, 1939, to 200 in February, 1942. This increase of 45 points represents a percentage rise of 29% above the level of September, 1939. As regards the level of wage rates for a normal week’s work, the Ministry of Labour Gazette (January, 1942) shows that the average increase due to wage increases and war bonuses since September, 1939, has been about 26% or 27%. It will be seen, therefore, that wages have barely kept pace with the rise of the cost of living index figure. If in some industries wages have risen by a larger percentage this is offset by the many industries in which the rise has been much smaller.
The critics who talk about high wages ignore the above official figures and either seize upon the few exceptional cases where the increase has been larger or else use a quite different set of figures which relate not to the standard wage for a normal week’s work but to earnings for the very long hours now being put in, earnings which include of course payment for overtime and Sunday work.
A typical case was a complaint in the House of Commons on January 20th, 1942, that youths under 21 were earning “excessive” wages. The figure mentioned was 50s. 5d. a week, but, as the Ministry of Labour pointed out, this happened to apply in only one out of many industries, and the average for all industries was only 40s. 7d.. Moreover, it made no allowance for the fact that owing to the scarcity of adult workers many of the youths in question are doing work formerly done by older men; ’incidentally without regard to the possible danger to their health through undue physical strain and long hours.
One critic of the earnings of juveniles, Lady Bonham-Carter, complained that production has suffered through the fact that a young munition maker may be receiving more than a Civil Defence worker or soldier. “It does not seem,” she said, “to rest on justice” (News Chronicle, February 5th, 1942). Needless to say, she did not develop her case and apply it to the whole capitalist class who are much concerned with inequalities inside the ranks of the working class but turn a blind eye on the fact that they as a propertied class receive their incomes simply by virtue of ownership and without the need to work at all.
Another relevant factor in any comparison between the rise of prices and the rise of wage-rates is that the Cost of Living Index is at best a very defective measure of the extent to which the cost of the workers’ necessities has risen since September, 1939. Even the Ministry of Labour do not claim that it is an accurate guide, being based as it is on the kind of articles a working class family bought in 1914. It should be added that even if the index were more accurate it would not make any appreciable difference to the working class. Wage negotiations may be to some degree influenced by such figures, but the index does not lay down a minimum level below which wages should not fall. All it does it to show to what extent the cost of the articles bought by workers has risen over a period of time. If all wages were brought into line with an accurately measured rise of prices since September, 1939, that would still, leave millions of workers in the position they were in before the war of being unable to afford the food and clothing, etc., required to maintain them in health and efficiency, let alone comfort. If, under war conditions of long hours of work, some of them actually earn enough to buy more of the bare necessities, it is only at the expense of their leisure, and in the long run, of their health. Capitalism is still with us. The wages system is still the wages system, and the remedy is not the reformist one of regulating wages and prices but of abolishing capitalism and the wages system in their entirety.