The Myth of fair wages

There are many rocks appearing among the stormy waters which the Wilson government are trying to navigate and one of them is called pay. Fair pay for nurses, for dustmen, bus drivers, postmen. Fair pay for miners, sailors, policemen, even for Members of Parliament.

Everyone in fact seems to be in favour of “fair” pay from which it follows that hardly anyone is asking the essential question of what the word means. It seems to be generally accepted that somewhere there is a magical formula which can fix a fair wage — a wage exactly adjusted to the skills, dangers, usefulness, responsibility, unpleasantness of each and every job. Of course this would be a beautiful excuse (as if one were needed) for a government to set up another of those Royal Commissions which could spend a lot of time gathering enough material to fill up very thick, big, books, which they will eventually produce as their report and which will very probably be quickly forgotten by everyone. But in the absence of a high powered commission, perhaps we could launch our enquiry.

What are we going to take as our standards for a fair wage? If we start with skill we shall soon run up against the problem that different skills are acquired in different ways. Some can be learned at university, others handed down from one generation to the next. In any case, is it ‘fair’ to pay for skill in itself, rather than the way in which it is applied?

Then there is the question of danger. But if wages were based on the dangers involved in the job. airline pilots would be paid no more than the rest of their crew, who obviously are all in equal danger — and the whole lot of them would be paid a great deal less than miners, or trawlermen, or scaffolders. And how much would stock brokers and insurance men get, under a danger-regulated wages system?

They would obviously be in favour of some other criteria being applied. Perhaps usefulness in some strange way the Stock Exchange and the insurance firms manage to convince themselves that their dealings are necessary to society. Yet the world manages to tick over when the Stock Exchange is shut, and people who don’t take out insurance policies seem as happy and healthy as those with a trunk full of the things. It would be a different story if, say, the electricity generating stations took the day off or if bakery workers decided they had had enough of their job. By those standards, people who do jobs which society could not do without— people like dustmen—should earn a lot more than stockbrokers.

Anyone who is not left completely bemused by that beautiful notion may care to pass on to considering the next standard, which is, responsibility. This is, in fact, one of the arguments used by air-line pilots to justify their relatively high pay—which is, they say, no more than due recognition of the fact that they have in their hands the lives of many people and a lot of very expensive hardware. Yet this argument is not extended to other workers in similar situations — train drivers and bus men, for example, are not expected to get anywhere near a pilot’s pay, nor even that of people like salesmen (one advertisement in The Times recently offered salesmens’ jobs for men of between 25 and 35 with a basic wage of between £2000 and £2500 which, with commission could reach £5000 per year whose failures would not destroy any equipment nor endanger any lives.

Should wages, then, be based upon how unpleasant a job is? Anyone who has spoken to a nurse, and who has heard of the sort of jobs they have to do for patients who are in the last stages of diseases like cancer, will know that no wage could possibly be high enough to reflect the unpleasantness of their job. Then what about mortuary attendants, ambulance drivers, who have to pick up what’s left of people after road accidents? Sewer men? they should all be getting far, far more than the Royal Family.

It is possible to labour this point almost indefinitely. The plain, simple fact is that there is no such thing as a fair wage, nor is there any method of estimating one, nor is there any profit in trying to find one. Wages are not governed by fairness. They are not a moral issue, to be influenced by arguments of danger or skill or usefulness or anything else.

Because wages are paid by one human being to another (or, to be exact, by one class to another), the fact that they are no different from the mass of other payments in capitalist society is obscured. Yet wages are as much the price of a commodity as what we pay for apples, or bread, or a hair cut, or a ride on a bus. What is it that fixes how much we pay for apples or a haircut ?

In the short term, it is whatever price is settled after a tug-of-war between the opposing forces of supply and demand. In England in the summer, apples fetch a pretty high price in the shops, but as the autumn comes, and apples from English orchards flood into the shops the price comes down abruptly. This same situation applies to wages. If employers are short of a particular type of worker, or if they are competing with other employers for his working ability, or if they desperately need workers to produce goods to cater for an inviting market, then wages for that worker will tend to rise. If the opposite is true they will end to fall, or rises will be harder to get and the employer will be in a strong position to exert a downward pressure on pay and working conditions.

The whole point about the nurses’ campaign for higher pay is that it is not backed up with any force. Nurses would not use the strike weapon, which is another way of saying that they would not use their bargaining power— which means that in the end their employer has the pull over them. Appeals to fairness and public sympathy have only a limited value — and the government exploits this situation to the full.

When the forces of supply and demand have extended their pressures, they cause a fluctuation in the price of the commodity but the line about which this fluctuation takes place is fixed by something other that market forces. This line is the value of the commodity and, in general terms, this consists of what is need of socially necessary labour to produce the commodity. Thus the fact that a great deal of social effort is needed, in both training and equipment, to get a pilot into the air and bring him back safely, means that his labour-power has a high value. But the same cannot be said of a dustman.

The reduction of labour-power into terms of value, implying as it does an unequal social relationship between human beings, is one of capitalism’s most degrading effects. It flows directly from the debasement of human ability, to be costed and evaluated, bought and sold, hired and discarded. It causes directly the separation of man from his work, it is the hinge of exploitation, in which our lives are regarded as fit subjects for probing to discover ever more intense methods of extracting surplus value from us. It means a life-time of servitude for the mass of the human race.

This issue, which has nothing to do with justice, is always ignored by the seekers after a fair wage. Yet anyone who really wants to make sure that human beings get what they work for is illogical not to look at the social system which denies them this. A long time ago, Marx pointed out the futility and conservatism of those who pine for fair wages. He knew that the answer was a revolutionary one – abolish the wages system.