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Comparability Con Game
Buried deep in the jungle of remotest Whitehall there is a secret government factory which supplies ministers with meaningless catch phrases. This factory is always hard at work but is under the greatest pressure at times of what the ministers call National Crisis (which is itself a meaningless catch phrase). At such times, it has registered its most memorable achievements; like Export or Die, Free Collective Bargaining, the Social Contract. And now, its latest product—Comparability Study.


We are in danger of being driven into a frenzy by the repeated drumming into our consciousness of the word Comparability, because the Labour government are clearly hoping that it will help get them out of their sticky situation over wages. Here is one example:


  In the wake of criticism of the 9 per cent pay offer to nurses the Health Minister, Mr. Ronald Moyle, gave a guarantee in the Commons yesterday that the nurses’ position in relation to other workers would be restored and maintained if they accepted the Government’s offer of a comparability study (The Guardian, 7/3/79).


The very next day the government announced the birth of something with the resounding title of the Standing Commission on Pay Comparability. Callaghan was in hopeful mood:


  These new arrangements . . . should help us in future years to avoid the dislocation and hardship that the public has suffered in recent weeks. (The Guardian, 8/3/19).


But of course the word Standing should not be taken too literally. Similar high hopes were expressed for bodies like the Relativities Board and the Prices and Incomes Board but they are dead and buried and there is no reason to suppose that the Commission on Comparability will have any longer life.


Like most of the products of the Meaningless Phrase Factory, Comparability is not a new idea. In 1974 the government accepted a recommendation of the Houghton Committee, that teachers’ pay should not be allowed to fall behind that in “comparable” occupations. In 1958 the Civil Servants had made a similar agreement with the government, after the report of the Priestley Royal Commission. Both groups of workers have subsequently found that the government, enforcing a wage restraint policy, has broken the agreement—which is why civil servants of all people, are now on strike.


Comparability is supposed to ensure that workers in what is called the public sector—nurses, dustmen, local government employees—earn roughly the same as those in similar jobs in private industry. It sounds like an especially generous gesture by the government to help workers who. because they are in the “public” sector, have a limited bargaining power. There is really little reason for this strange idea; civil servants, dustmen and sewerage workers have already shown that they can cause quite a bit of disruption by striking and the bargaining power of nurses, although unused, is all too obvious.


It is not necessary to be a cynic, to realise that the government’s offer of a comparability study is anything but generous. The so-called monetarists, whose ideas on how to run capitalism become increasingly popular in a desperate response to the abject failure of interventionist theories, would argue that in any case it is unnecessary. In their view, wage negotiations should be left to run free and in that process comparability would be achieved by the process of workers moving from the lower paid jobs to the higher. This may be a callous simplification—an enforced change of employment can be a stressful experience for a worker—but it does illuminate some of the fallacies of the Comparability Game.


This game is played by two sides each with a different object. In some cases, a union may put a case for a rise on the grounds that its members earn less than those in similar jobs. On the other side governments can play the game as a delaying tactic—as the Labour government is doing now—by offering something less than the unions demand with a promise that an investigation into comparability will bring absolutely fair and balanced wages to everyone.


Now this must sound like a very reasonable and progressive idea to the City gent on the Clapham omnibus, who longs to see Britain a sunlit, strike-free land where all industrial disputes are settled by an infallible arbitration system and all wages balanced by a process of completely rational awards. The City gent does not nurture such fantasies alone:


  . . . you’ve got to get the balance roughly right. This again, is a function of government — to get the balance right between the groups in your society as well as between the individuals in your society.
  The Times had a marvellous leading article—I think it was in January last year—about a balanced society. It said what my colleagues and I had been saying for quite some time . . . (Margaret Thatcher, Observer, 25/2/79).


In this sort of dream society everyone earns a wage exactly suited to their job and accepts their place on the social and economic ladder. No dustmen envies the income of a solicitor and conscientiously carts away the latter’s rubbish because he knows that everyone does a Fair Days Work for a Fair Days Pay. He also knows that his dustman’s wages buy goods whose prices always represent exactly what they are worth, that the best solicitors get the highest fees and indeed the whole of capitalism moves smoothly on economic bearings lubricated by justice and good sense.


The reality is that there are no such things as fair pay or fair prices. Whatever the City gent might mean by justice and good sense—or Margaret Thatcher by balance in society—simply don’t come into the process by which wages and other prices are determined. By the same token Comparability is a nonsense. How is it possible to fix a “fair” wage for, say, the nurses who care for sufferers from terminal cancer? Or for the workers who operate sewage plants, remembering the consequences of a breakdown in sewage disposal? Can their wages be “balanced” or compared against those of members of the armed forces, whose work is wholly destructive? Is it “fair” that ambulance crews should receive a fraction of the income of stock-brokers and members of Lloyds?


Then what about a comparison with members of the ruling class, like the Duke of Westminster whose only significant achievement to date has been to be born into a family which acquired, a couple of hundred years ago, some stretches of swampy London water meadow which became Mayfair, Belgravia, Pimlico . . . If the Duke of Westminster received a “fair” wage, according to his usefulness to society, he would starve to death while his many stately homes would be occupied by dustmen and nurses.


But that, too, is a dream of a sort. The majority of people in capitalist society are compelled to work in order to live, whether as nurses or clerks or miners or whatever. When they work they are selling their mental and physical energies, their labour power, to an employer. Thus labour power is a commodity, like apples or cars or houses. In some way or other every commodity will struggle to be sold at the highest possible price; in the case of labour power this struggle is a deliberate affair of negotiation, threat, work to rule, strike, lock out and so on. There is no eternal morality in all of this; it is a matter of power and force.


In this struggle both sides will use any weapon or argument which comes to hand and Comparability is one of these. But like much trade union activity it has its dangers for the working class. Firstly, it is an argument which can be used in more than one direction; for example what happens if wages in the “comparable” industries fall below those of the workers who are claiming a rise on grounds of comparability? And, as we are seeing at present, it is something which can be used by employers as a delaying tactic, with the rewards doubtful.


Secondly, it is divisive for workers to argue that one group should have wages related to another because this, rather than an attempt to achieve equality, is an argument against workers in one occupation getting more than those in another. For workers to compete against each other in the wages struggle, to try to use each other as rungs up the ladder of improvement, is not an exercise in working class unity.


And unity is an essential element in working class struggle. The ideal wage claim would be one in which the entire working class together demand everything that they produce. The capitalist class would find such unity irresistible; no meaningless catch phrase or delaying tactic could stand in its way. But of course a claim like that would mean a lot more; it would signal that capitalism itself was in its terminal stage, needing only to be nursed quietly to death.