1990s >> 1990 >> no-1027-march-1990

The price of caring

The overwhelming majority of British workers support the industrial action taken by the ambulance workers. Despite all the efforts of the bosses press to depict them as money-grubbing troublemakers, few workers fail to see that when ambulance workers are offered a pay award which is less than the rate of inflation (a relative pay cut) there is something badly wrong.

When that miserable embodiment of well-fed callousness. Kenneth Clarke, the Minister of Health, says that ambulance workers are only van drivers, he insults the medical skills of ambulance crews as well as the hard work of van drivers The reality of our rulers economic priorities are plain to see: if you are a seventeen-year old police officer, trained to protect property, you are worth considerably more money than if you are a fully-trained life-saver in the ambulance service: if you are a nurse in an NHS hospital you are worth ten—sometimes one hundred—times less than a money-vandal in the City who wastes away his days playing the Stock Exchange game for his parasite employers.

To most workers it seems unfair that useful work should receive low wages. There is something wrong. Maybe it is the government and that heartless woman Thatcher. If only we were led by Neil and his well-meaning team. To be sure, the Labour government-in-waiting is making the most of the ambulance dispute. Smiling Labour politicians adopt postures of the most self-righteous indignation and sermonise against the government’s indifference to human need. They forget to mention their own NHS cuts when they were in power, and keep conspicuously quiet about the last Labour government’s plans to use troops to break a threatened ambulance strike in the winter of 1978.

It may seem “unfair”, but what is fairness under the present social system? It is getting the best price for what you sell. The price of labour power (wages and salaries) is no different from the price of cat food when it comes to “fairness”. If there is a profit to be made by putting one tin of pet food on the market for 30 pence and the other for 50 pence, that is going to happen, regardless of the fact that the 50 pence commodity may taste no better than the 30 pence brand. Similarly, if a junior doctor can be purchased to work in a hospital for up to eighty hours a week for, say, 40 per cent less than it costs to buy a military research scientist, then this has nothing to do with the greater usefulness of arms production than working in a casualty department.

Illusion of Fair Wages

The market does not exist to measure or reflect social use. but only supply and demand in relation to what can be bought and sold profitably. There is a big market for new ways of killing people: skill in giving medical assistance to those who are ill but poor has lesser market significance. That is why we live in a mad-house society where killing is rewarded more than caring. The soldier trained to shoot and kill is given a medal: the ambulance worker stands in the high street with a bucket asking for a few pence to sustain the struggle for better pay.

There are stickers being handed out by the ambulance workers calling for fair pay. The only fair pay is no wage at all. We agree that the government would be more than ready to concede to such a demand, but let us take the matter a little further.

Let us suppose that nurses were paid well. For this to happen the market would have to be ignored. Why should workers be given fat salaries for looking after the sick when only a minority of the ill can afford to pay for their treatment? But let us imagine that a capitalist utopia has come about, as the left-wing reformers hope will happen. Ambulance workers are taking home big salaries and so are all of the most caring occupations. A problem would still exist. What about those workers who are doing necessary work for society, but receive less pay than the ambulance workers and nurses? They will then be demanding greater “fairness”. They will say that it is unfair that they, whose contributions to society might be just as useful, if less visibly caring, are not equal to the well-paid health workers.

If health workers are extremely highly paid there will be queues of wage slaves wanting to do these jobs (rather than a rush to leave such jobs, as is the case now) and those who are surplus to requirements might well complain that it is unfair that just because there is no room for them m the health service the price of their standard of life poorer. So. there would still be inequality—still there would be cries against “unfairness”.

Of course, the scenario outlined above is a daydream. The most useful workers will never be the best-paid people Under the market system labour power is valued in terms of production for profit, not social use. It is pointless for workers who feel under-valued” to ask to be recognised and paid a “decent'” wage Like it or not. they will be paid the market rate. The degree to which they struggle against the downward pressure upon their wages will help them a little, but in the end it is not going to enable them to escape from the tyranny of the profit system and its anti-human priorities.

There is no such thing as a decent wage or salary. The worker on 100 a week would rightly prefer to be on 1000 a week, but if all workers were paid 1000 a week we would still have to sell ourselves to the boss and still have to spend our earnings buying back some of the goods and services which we, the workers, have produced.

Abolition of Wage Labour

There is only one alternative to this situation and that is to abolish wage labour altogether. Instead of seeking “fair” wages, workers should realise that all wages are less than the value of what they produce. It is the difference between what the workers produce and what they are paid that is the basis of the unearned profit which the capitalists legally rob from the working class. The wages system is a system of legitimised exploitation. Those who do useful work can never win under such a system.

In a socialist society we shall work because it is useful to do so. People will contribute according to their abilities. In return, they will take freely from the common store of wealth in accordance with their self-determined needs. There will be no need to sell human care. Women and men who work in hospitals or on ambulance crews will do so simply because they are needed. They will have free and equal access to the wealth of society, not a bag of metal tokens called money wages.

Free access to all wealth will be the right of all people in a socialist society, regardless of whether they perform visibly caring work or less obviously important work or if, as a result of age or illness, they are unable to work at all. In a wageless society the sole rewards for work will be the satisfaction of utilising your mental and physical faculties and the appreciation of others. Ambulance crews will have the pleasure of knowing that they served their fellow men and women, who in many other ways will be serving them.

The wages system is still here. If Tories and Labourites have their way it will be forever. Even the few leftists who favour the abolition of wage-labour regard it as such a long-term aim as to be on a par with the Popes preparation for the second coming of Jesus Christ. While there is a wages system workers must unite to get the most possible out of it. As fellow workers. socialists offer the hand of solidarity to the ambulance men and women. But as revolutionaries, seeking a new and saner way to run society, our immediate objective is to be contrasted with the parrot cries of pseudo-radicals who cannot see beyond the illusory horizon of “fair wages” for all. The Socialist Party stands alone in the political arena, united by Marx’s revolutionary slogan, “abolition of the wages system”

Steve Coleman