Piece work, bonus and the psychologist

The problem of how to get more out of the working class has been one which has perplexed capitalist society ever since its inception. The field over which discussion on this subject has ranged has been an unlimited one. Defenders of private property, the Church, the Press, the politician and the professor, indeed most of the stout hearted apologists for Capitalism in its various forms, have all had something to say on the matter. More recently this field has been invaded by the Trade Union leaders and at the moment of writing Mr. A. Horner (Communist) is joining together with Sir William Lawther, a labourite, and Sir Herbert Holdsworth of the National Coal Board, in an appeal to the miners to increase output.

One of the plots that is so often hatched to force us to work harder is piece work or a bonus scheme in some form or another.

The older established forms of piece work are well known. The idea of paying an employee a certain rate for a piece of work turned out has long been established in certain industries and workers have learnt from bitter experience how the system is operated by the employers. Often just when they seem to be gaining a little, the employer declares it to be “uneconomical” and alters the rate for the job. Of course, the results are often quite beneficial to the capitalist. The Daily Herald of 9th November, 1950, reported that workers on piecework in the women’s shoe industry produced double the output of those on day wages, although the earnings of the piece workers were only just over £2 per week more.

Another variation of the same theme is to introduce an incentive bonus which is paid in addition to the weekly or hourly rates. During and since the war this has become a popular method of avoiding large wage increases, particularly in the building and civil engineering industries.

A report appeared in the Manchester Guardian of February 23rd, 1953, headed “Failings of the Group Bonus Scheme” dealing with some research into this subject carried out by a Dr. Norah M. Davis of the Medical Research Councils’ Group in Industrial Psychology.

The function of “psychologists” in general has always been something of a puzzle to the writer but an “industrial psychologist” is a bird somewhat easier to define. In general their object seems to be to try and iron out the mental difficulties of the workers in order to make them more contented in their work. Indeed, throughout her report Dr. Davis seems to refer to “the workers” in a similar manner to that of the biologist dealing with the life and habits of some lower specie of animals.

The report states “Over 60% felt a sense of injustice which expressed itself either in aggression or resigned helplessness. This was because the bonus they received each week varies in an unpredictable manner. Although pay was related to work done, the relationship was so complicated that no one understood it and working harder in fact seemed to make no difference to money at the end of the week.”

To the socialist this is by no means an amazing revelation and one wonders why capitalists have to call on their “industrial psychologists” to tell them this. It is a fact that most of us have this feeling at the end of a week’s work, with or without a group bonus scheme. The reason for it has nothing to do with “psychology” but arises directly from the fact that, under capitalism, the wealth we produce belongs to the ruling class. The attitudes of “resigned helplessness” or “aggression” are but the reflection of the very real grievances of the workers. Dr. Davis has a very difficult task ahead of her if she and her fellow “industrial psychologists” hope to create the illusion in the minds of the workers that their sole object should be to work harder and co-operate more together in the interests of the capitalists.

The report does well to mention the “social disunity” of the group bonus scheme, the conflict it created within the group and states that some workers thought it “evil” and that it produced “tragic results.” Those of us who have experienced this sort of scheme at work will know what it is to see one worker against another, the more “diligent” member of the group acting as a sort of unpaid foreman, chasing his fellow workers and blaming them for every fall in his earnings. This must make the employers very happy and no doubt they would be even happier if only the workers would take up the right “psychological attitude.”

Dr. Davis notices some further tragic results of the system when she mentions the question of the nervous exhaustion and strain felt by the people working in the factories she visited. One departmental manager said, for example, that his men were “extraordinarily difficult to handle, touchy and liable to flare up over any trifle.”

This is capitalism at its modem stage of development, the age of speed, the race for greater and greater production and the struggle for world markets. The roundabout goes faster and ever faster, the more speedy the worker and the more concentrated his work, the greater is production bringing with it ever mounting riches for a privileged minority. As for the workers, they are but the losers of the race, the tragic, fallen victims, nervous and neurotic, of an age of racing production and rocketing profits.

To these problems the “industrial psychologist” has no answer. True Dr. Davis tells us that doctors and personnel managers as well as the management and the “time-study” engineer should be called in to settle the “payment systems.” But we rest assured, that whoever is called in to settle how much wages the workers should receive they will get no more than is necessary to keep them alive and able to work.

The problems dealt with by Dr. Davis have very little to do with that which is called “psychology” but arise from the social conditions of the modern world. Harmonious relationships within industry cannot be created within the framework of capitalism. It may be possible to foster the illusion in the minds of the workers that greater productivity under this system is in their interests, but it will be an illusion that will be finally shattered by the ever-pressing problems of the capitalist world.

D. M.

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