|Work and Wealth|
CHAPTER XIII: THE HUMAN CLAIMS OF
§1. The validity of the human law of distribution is well
tested by considering the light it sheds upon the modern claims of Labour and
the Movement which is endeavouring to realise these claims. For the significance
of the Labour Movement will continue to be misunderstood so long as it is
regarded as a mere demand for a larger quantity of wages and of leisure,
important as these objects are. The real demand of Labour is at once more
radical and more human. It is a demand that Labour shall no longer be bought and
sold as a dead commodity subject to the fluctuations of Demand and Supply in the
market, but that its remuneration shall be regulated on the basis of the human
needs of a family living in a civilised country.
At present most sorts of labourers are paid according to the quantity of labour-power they give out, and according to the market-price set upon a unit of each several sort of labour-power. This means that the actual weekly earnings of some grades of labourer are much higher than those of other grades, not because the work takes more out of them, or because it involves a higher standard of living, but because some natural, some fortuitous, or some organised scarcity of supply exists in the former grades, while there is abundance of supply in the latter.1 Moreover, the weekly earnings for any of these sorts of labour will vary from week to week, from month to month, or year to year, with the variations of Supply and Demand in the Labour Market. The income of the working family will thus vary for reasons utterly beyond its control, though its requirements for economic and human efficiency show no such variation. Thus there is no security for any class standard of living.
Within each class or grade of labour there will be variations of the individual family wage, based on the amount of labour-power actually given out in the week. A less effective worker, even though he puts out as much effort, will earn less money than a more effective. This seems necessary, reasonable and even just, so long as we accept the ordinary view that labour should be bought and sold like any other commodity.
But once accept the view that to buy labour-power, like other commodities, at a price determined purely by relations of Supply and Demand, is a policy dangerous to the life and well-being of the individual whose labour-power is thus bought and sold, to those of his family and of society, your attitude towards the labour-movement in general, and even to certain demands which at first sight seem unreasonable, will undergo a great change.
The fundamental assumption of the Labour Movement, in its demands for reformed remuneration, is that the private human needs of a working family should be regularly and securely met out of weekly pay. The life and health of the family, and that sense of security which is essential to sound character and regular habits, to the exercise of reasonable foresight, and the formation and execution of reasonable plans, all hinge upon this central demand for a sufficiency and regularity of weekly income based upon the human needs of a family.
§2. This explains alike the working-class objections to piecework, the demand for a minimum wage, and the policy of limitation of individual output. For piece-work, even more than time-work, is based upon a total ignoring of the human conditions which affect the giving out of labour-power. It is the plainest and most logical assertion of the commodity view of labour, the most complete denial that the human needs of the worker have any claim to determine what he should be paid.
So firmly-rooted in the breast of the ordinary non-working man, and of many working-men, is the notion that a man, who has produced twice as large an output as another man, ought, as a simple matter of right or justice, to receive a payment twice as large, that it is very difficult to dislodge it. It represents the greatest triumph of the business point of view over humanity. If a man has done twice as much, of course be ought to receive twice as much! It seems an ethical truism. And yet I venture to affirm that it has nothing ethical in it. It has assumed this moral guise because of a deep distrust of human nature which it expresses. How will you get a man to do his best unless you pay him according to the amount he does? It is this purely practical consideration that has imposed upon the piece-work system the appearance of axiomatic justice.
It is not difficult to strip off the spurious ethics of the principle. You say that piece-wages or payment by result is right because it induces men to do their best. But what do we mean by 'doing their best.'? A weak man may hew one ton of coals while a strong man may hew two. Has not the former 'done his best' equally with the latter? The strength of a strong man, the natural or even the acquired skill of a skilful man, cannot be assumed as a personal merit which deserves reward in the terms of payment. If there is merit anywhere, it is in the effort, not in the achievement or product, and piece-wages measure only the latter.
No! there is nothing inherently just in the piece-wage system. Its real defence is that it is the most practical way of getting men to work as hard as they can: it is a check on skulking and sugaring. It assumes that no other effective motive can be made operative in business except quantity of payment.
§3. As Ruskin and many others have remarked, the lie is given to this assumption in an increasing number of kinds of work where the highest qualities of human power, the finest sorts of mental skill and responsibility, are involved. Public servants of all grades, from Cabinet Masters and Judges down to municipal dustmen, are paid by salaries, not by piece-wages. The same is true of the more remunerative and more responsible work in private businesses. No Government, no private firm, buys the services of its most valuable employees at the lowest market-price, or attempts to apply to them a piece-work scale. It would not pay them to do so, and they know it. Nor is this merely because some sorts of work do not easily admit of being measured by the piece. It would be possible to pay Judges, as counsel are paid, by the case. Cabinet Ministers might be paid on piece-wages for Laws measured by the number or length of their clauses. The chief reason for adopting payment by fixed salary is that it is reckoned a wise mode of securing good individual services. It is recognised that each piece of work will be better done, if the workers set about it in a thoroughly disinterested manner, concentrated in their thoughts and feelings entirely on the work itself, and not entangled in the consideration of what they are to get out of it. This is supposed to be the difference between the professional man and the tradesman, that the former performs a function and incidentally receives a fee, while the latter, by the very acts of buying and selling that constitute his business, keeps his mind set upon the profit from each several transaction.
But the fixed and guaranteed salary for public servants has another ground. It may profit a business firm to practise an economy of sweating, to drive its employees and consume their health and strength by a few years' excessive toil, to take on new casual workers for brief spurts of trade, to sack employees ruthlessly, as soon as trade begins to flag, or their individual powers of work are impaired by age. A piece-work system, with no guarantee of employment or of weekly wage, may be a sound business economy for a private firm. It cannot be a sound economy for a State or a Municipality.
For a large and increasing share of the work and the expenditure of most States and Municipalities is applied in trying to mend or alleviate damages or dangers to the health, security, intelligence, and character of the workers and their families, arising from insufficiency of work and wages or other defects of private industrialism. It would obviously be bad public economy to break down the lives and homes of public employees by underpaying or overworking them, or by dismissing and leaving them to starve when work was slack. For what was saved in the wage-bill of the particular department, would be squandered in poor-law, police, hospitals, old-age pensions, invalidity and employment relief. Nor is that all. A mass of ill-paid, ill-housed workers, alternately overworked and out of work, stands as a chief barrier in every one of those paths of social progress and national development which modern statecraft sets itself to follow. The low wage of unskilled labour is to-day a source of infinite waste of the forces of national education. Still keeping our argument upon the narrowest lines of economy, we plainly realise that the financial resources, upon which the State can draw for all her services, depend in the last resort upon the general economic efficiency of the working population, and that a system of public employment which was, however indirectly, detrimental to this health, longevity and intelligence, would rank as bad business from the public standpoint.
It is possible that in this country the salary mode of payment is gaining ground. Apart from the public services, national and municipal, which now employ some 7 per cent of the total employed population, the great transport and the distributive industries are almost entirely run upon the salary basis. These departments of industry are constantly increasing, not only in absolute size, but in the proportion of the total employment they afford. To them must be added the large class of domestic service. Such great salaried services cannot, indeed, be claimed as triumphs for the organic principle of distribution, or payment according to needs. For the most part they are very unsatisfactory modifications of the piece-wage or commodity view of labour. For, except for the small higher grades of officials, they mostly retain the two chief defects of the ordinary wage-system, a payment of weekly income not based on a proper computation of human needs, and a lack of adequate security of tenure. Over a large part of the field of industry and commerce where weekly fixed salaries are paid, there exists a flagrant disregard for all considerations of human subsistence. Some of the worse, though not the worst, forms of 'sweating' are found in shops, workshops and factories where women are employed on weekly salaries.
None the less, it remains true that the salary is a more rational form of payment for labour than the time or piece wage, and that, as the humanisation of industry proceeds, it will more and more displace the wage-system. For where salaries are paid, the consideration of needs or subsistence does tend always to qualify the mere commodity view of labour.
Piece-wage or time-wage ignores the worker as a human being and the supporter of a family: it ignores him as a personality and regards him merely as an instrument for giving out units of productive power to be paid for on the same terms as the units of mechanical power used in working machinery.
§4. The Labour Movement insists that the personal and human factor is fundamental as a condition in the labour bargain. If labour is treated as a mere commodity, its price affords no security of life to the labourer. It may not find a customer at all, and so he starves and with him his family, the future supply of labour. Or, left to the fluctuations of the market, it may sell at a price which is insufficient for his maintenance. The fluctuations of price in all other markets involve only the pecuniary profit or loss of those who sell, fluctuations of the price of labour involve the existence and well-being of human families and of the nation. Hence the attack of organised labour on this whole conception of the labour-market, and the demand that the remuneration of labour shall not be left to the higgling of a market.
The chief fight is for a secure weekly income, or for conditions of employment which lead up to this. A minimum or a living wage is the usual name given to this demand. Complaint is made of the vagueness of the demand. But this vagueness does not make the demand unreasonable. A living wage indeed is elastic as life itself: it expands and will continue to expand, with the development of life for the workers. But what in effect is meant at the present by a living or subsistence wage is such a regular weekly sum as suffices to maintain the ordinary working family in health and economic efficiency.
It is contended that no purchase of labour should be permitted which entails the degradation of that standard. When a minimum rate of piece-wages is demanded, the implicit understanding is that it is such as will yield under normal conditions the ordinary weekly subsistence or standard wage. Since piece-wages are so firmly established in many trades that it is impracticable to demand their immediate abolition, the actual struggle between employees and employers is as to whether these piece-wages shall be allowed to fluctuate indefinitely, being dragged at the heels of the prices of commodities, or whether an absolute limit shall be set upon their fall. The employer says, 'When trade is good and prices and profits high, labour will share the prosperity in high rates of wage and large weekly earnings: so, when trade is bad and prices and profits low, labour must share this adversity and take low. pay, Organised labour replies, 'No, there is no parity between the power of capital and of labour to bear depressions: capital is strong and can bear up against low profits without perishing, labour is weak and cannot bear up against low wages. We will only sell our labour-power on condition that a lower limit is set upon its price, such a limit as will enable the labourer to keep body and soul together, and to maintain that efficiency which constitutes his working capital. This minimum wage should be regarded as a fixed cost in your production. At present the prices of your goods oscillate without any assigned limit. You accept low contracts for work, and then adduce this low price as a reason for reducing wages. Let a minimum wage once be adopted in the trade, and contract prices cannot be accepted on so low a level. The minimum wage will thus help to steady selling prices and to regulate employment and output.'
Both the economics and the social ethics of this labour contention are in substance sound. So long as the price of labour is left to higgling in a competitive market, there is nothing to prevent the wages falling to the lowest level at which a sufficient number of workers can be induced to consent to work, and that level may involve a reduction of the standard of living in their families below the true subsistence point. The fixing of wages by so-called free competition affords no security for a family wage of efficiency or even of subsistence. There should be no mistake upon this essential matter. The doctrine of 'economy of high wages' has no such general efficacy as is sometimes suggested. Though in many cases high wages are essential to maintain and evoke the energy and efficiency required, in other cases they are not. From the standpoint of the immediate profits of employers 'sweating' often pays. But from the standpoint of society it never pays.
Therefore, the policy of the organised workers, in seeking to enforce the doctrine of a minimum wage, is not only a policy of self-preservation for the working-classes but a salutary social policy. It is for this reason that the State intervenes in favour of the practice, establishing Trade Boards to enforce its application in so-called 'sweated trades', and acknowledges, in theory at any rate, its validity in all public employments and public contracts.
§5. Although this minimum wage is tolerably remote from the ideal of a fixed weekly salary in most trades, it is a true step in this direction. The most controverted item in trade-union policy, the limitation of individual output, is also partly actuated by the same motive. Few things make the ordinary business man more indignant than the trade-union regulations in certain trades which restrain stronger or quicker workers from putting forth their full productive energy. They denounce alike its dishonesty and its bad economy. It is based, they say, upon the 'lump of labour' fallacy, the false notion that there exists an absolutely limited amount of employment, or work to be done, and that if the stronger or quicker men do more than their share, the others will go short. This refusal to allow each man to do his best, like the related refusal to get the full work out of new labour-saving machinery, appears monstrously perverse and wicked. But, though partly animated by short-sighted economic views, this policy is not entirely to be thus explained. The levelling down of the output of all workers to a standard has partly for its object the establishment of greater evenness of income among the workers in a trade. At any given time in a given mill, or factory town, the actual amount of available employment is limited, and for the time it is true that by limitation of individual output a larger number of workers are employed, and a larger number of working families are provided with a normal wage, than would have been the case if a certain number of men were encouraged to an unrestricted energy and unlimited overtime. In the long run, it may be better to encourage full individual liberty of output, even in the interest of the aggregate of employment, but the restraints to which i here allude become more intelligible when they are regarded as attempts to enforce a common class weekly wage by means of an even distribution of employment.
A minimum piece-wage, based on a moderate computation of the weekly output per worker, and accompanied by a substantial security of full regular employment, would in effect place the piece-worker in the position of a salaried employee. But, of course, a minimum piece-wage, however high, does not go far to this end, unless security of tenure at fairly full employment is obtained. The problem of un- and under-employment and of irregular employment is now beginning to be recognised in its full social gravity. A weekly wage of bare efficiency with regular employment is socially far superior to a higher average wage accompanied by great irregularity of work. The former admits stability of modes of living and ready money payments: it conduces to steadiness of character and provision for the future without anxiety. Rapid and considerable fluctuations of wages, even with full employment, are damaging to character and stability of standards: but irregularity of employment is the most destructive agency to the character, the standard of comfort, the health and sanity of wage-earners. The knowledge that he is liable at any time, from commercial or natural causes that lie entirely outside his control, to lose the opportunity to work and earn his livelihood, takes out of a man that confidence in the fundamental rationality of life which is essential to soundness of character. Religion, ethics, education, can have little hold upon workers exposed to such powerful illustrations of the unreason and injustice of industry and of society.
The regularisation of industry, so as to afford substantial guarantees of full regular employment, thus ranks with the minimum wage as the most substantial contribution towards the substitution of salary for wages, which the organic law of Distribution requires. The State is beginning to cooperate with the Labour Movement for the attainment of this social object, stimulating employers to organise their industries so as to furnish a more even volume of employment.
§6. This interpretation of the Labour Movement as a half-conscious manifold endeavour to rescue the remuneration of Labour from the risks and defects of the competitive labour market, and to establish it on an economy of human needs, is not fully understood without some further reference to the action of organised society. The Labour Movement, in its endeavour to get a better distribution of the income, is not confined to trying to secure a satisfactory minimum or standard wage, fortified by greater security of work and personal insurance against unemployment. It seeks also to supplement its wages by cooperative and public provisions.
The cooperative movement is an attempt to convert into real wages some of the profits of employers and shareholders in manufacturing and commercial businesses, so enlarging the proportion of the real income of the nation which goes to the remuneration of labour. But the growing attachment of the Labour Organisations to politics is equally motived by the endeavour to secure from the State, not merely legal supports for higher wages and improved conditions of employment, but actual supplements to wages in the shape of contributions from the public services to their standard of living. Free education, old-age pensions, and public subsidies towards insurance are a direct contribution from the State to the higher standard of life which modern civilised society demands. Health, education, recreation, and provision against emergencies, are coming more and more to be recognised as proper objects of governmental action, and other important services, such as transport, credit, art, music and literature, are far on the way to becoming communal supplies. Although these modes of social provision may be chiefly motived by considerations of public health and other common goods, they nevertheless must rank as contributions to the standard of comfort and well-being of the working-class families who are the special beneficiaries. Relieving, as they do in many instances, the private incomes of the workers from expenditure which otherwise the family would find it to its private interest to incur, these growing public services form a genuine and a considerable contribution to the available real income of the working-classes. So far as by taxation direct or indirect the cost of such public services can be considered a burden upon, or a deduction from the wage-income of the workers, it forms, of course, no net addition to their share, but is only a public control over methods of expenditure. But inasmuch as the distinct tendency of modern taxation is towards an increasing taxation of the incomes and property of the non-working classes, these public services rank as supplementary income, paid in kind, and tending to equalise the standard of living of individual workers and grades of workers. The criticism sometimes directed against this State socialism, upon the ground that it tends to weaken the force of wage-bargaining and transfers to the shoulders of 'society' costs which employers would otherwise have to bear in the shape of higher money wages, would have considerable force, if the old laissez-faire principle of 'free contract' were allowed otherwise to work unimpeded. But this, as we see, is not the case. The growing policy of minimum and standard rates, supported by public opinion and, where necessary, by public law, and hardening into a policy of fixed salaries, is nowise inconsistent with a simultaneous development of communal supplies of goods and services which usually lie a little above the normal standard of comfort of those who are the chief beneficiaries.
The growing political activities of a labour movement which once eschewed State aids not merely attest the general growth of conscious democracy but imply a recognition of the direct contribution which the State is making towards a general distribution of the national income in accordance with an economy of human needs.
1. The width of variations in the weekly earnings, involving in most instances a nearly corresponding variety of family income, may be illustrated by the following estimate compiled by Mr. Webb, from a careful analysis of official wage returns. New Statesman, May 10, 1913.