Peter Petroff February 1938

The Soviet Wages System

Source: Labour, February 1938, p. 141-2;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In the early days of the revolution the victorious working-class was striving for equality. Attempts were made to introduce “equal payment for all.”

I recollect, in the spring of 1918 in the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs everyone from the People’s Commissar to the messengers received 500 roubles per month.

This system did not work and soon disappeared. However, during the whole period of war communism inequality was accepted as an evil that would one day be overcome.

Since the Socialist Soviet Republic is Socialist only in name no real equality is possible.

Soon a tendency towards the opposite extreme began to develop. Seventeen categories of wages were introduced. The opposition of the workers prevented the realisation of this scheme for a considerable time. A number of variations existed – eight categories of wages generally prevailed.

Definite rates of wages for each category of workers were fixed in the collective agreements between the employing State institutions and the Trade Unions.

With the advent of the Stalin regime the gospel of inequality began to be preached. The system of payment by result, the all-round application of piece-work made rapid progress. In 1928, When the first Five Year-Plan was introduced, piecework accounted to 57.5 per cent., in 1932 it reached 63.7 per cent., in 1933 it grew to 70 per cent, And it was supplemented by a “progressive” bonus system.

“The right-opportunist leadership of, the Trade Unions has, in practice, carried out a policy of equalisation ... and decrease of piece work.” complains A. Kudriavtsev in Voprosy Profdvzhenia (Problems of Trade Unionism), October, 1937. “The enemy of the people, Tomsky, and his gang have been perverting the policy of the Party directed towards a system of payment by quantity and quality of work. An exceptional role in overcoming the petty-bourgeois equalisation was played by Comrade Stalin, who .... in 1931 has given a complete programme of the struggle for the eradication of equalisation. On the directives of Comrade Stalin, the Party and the Trade Unions have carried out an enormous work for the establishment of piecework, progressive bonus and other encouraging forms of payment.”

Since Shvernik was put in place of Tomsky the Trade Unions entered upon a severe fight against “illegal increases of wages.”

“In many cases” indignantly declares the official Trade Union organ, Trud, of 11/8/1937, “there occurred arbitrary illegal additions to wages, leading to enormous over-expenditure on wages.”

The Soviet Trade Unions who have developed “Socialist” competition, shock brigadism, and the Stakhanov “movement” are using all their power to develop the “progressive piecework system” of remuneration of labour in all branches of industry. In March, 1937, this system prevailed:

 Per cent.
In iron and steel worksto 37.6
In the cotton industryto 42.11
In the linen industryto 59.5
In the coke-chemical industryto 45.9

The essence of this “progressive piecework system” consists in the introduction of various scales of rates of payment for the same kind, quality and quantity of work to be applied in accordance with the individual worker’s attainment, non-attainment, or the percentage of his over-attainment of the prescribed norm of output.

The differentiation of piecework rates can thus be not only of a progressive character, that is to say higher than the basic scale, but also regressive – lower than the normal payment in case of non-fulfilment of the norm. The fixing of the prescribed norms of output therefore is of paramount importance to the workers.

At the end of 1936 a considerable percentage of the workers were unable to attain the prescribed norm, as may be seen from the instances given in the following table:

IndustryPercentage of attainment of norm
 Not attained100-119%120-149%150-119% & over
Ore mining14.829.637.418.2

By the spring of 1937 in most industries the prescribed norms of output were considerably raised – by 13 to 40 per cent.

As the prevailing low wages led to a tremendous fluctuation among the workers many factory administrations tried, under the cover of the progressive piecework, to add in various ways to the workers’ earnings. Such “illegal practices” brought the wrath of the “Trade Unions” on to the heads of the directors. Shvernik, the secretary of the V.C.S.P.S. (Central Council of Trade Unions) proclaimed:

“We must fight against the attempts utilise the progressive piecework system for a mechanical increase of wages, unconnected with an increase in the productivity of labour.”

Already the Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars of February 21 1933 , was intended to put a stop to the “mechanical squandering” of the wage funds. It also increased the porters of the “commanders of production” as regards regulation of labour conditions and wages.

Since the wage bills for each industrial institution, or works are fixed quantities the high premiums paid out to lucky Stakhanovites have to be counterbalanced by low payments to the average workers. When, for instance, the Stakhanovite Bannov, candidate for the Supreme Council) boasts that be attained fourteen norms and earned 355 roubles in one shift his unfortunate fellow-miners will have to foot the bill.

Soviet statistics on wages are both unreliable and inadequate. They publish only “average wages” for various spheres economic life. These include the wages of the highest officials, together with those of technical staff, employees, and workers. They provide no guide to the actual position of various groups of workers. Such information is rarely found.

While the total number of employed persons in all spheres of economic life in Russia increased from 22,300,090 in 1933 to 26,300,000 in 1937 the total wage fund simultaneously was raised from 25.0 milliard roubles to 78.3 milliard roubles.

The average wages show the following development during the period of the second Five-Year-Plan:

 In Roubles
YearAverage Wage: All Spheres Economic LifeAverage Wage: Big Industry
1937 (plan)2.97657.233,00057.70

Stalin’s economists and propagandists simply compare the bare figures of 1924-1925 with those of 1936-37 to “show” the great increase in wages. Yet they know well enough that in 1924-25 there was the stabilised tchervoniets-rouble while the value of the present inflated Stalin rouble is negligible. A comparison with 1934 also misleading – in 1934 there were still the ration cards: The worker received on the average about one-third of his demands at a very low price. Since, January 1 and October 5, 1935, all these cards have been abolished and unified prices established.

In 1936, according to Trud 7.6 per cent of the workers earned less than 300 roubles per month. As in that year the total number of persons employed was 25.7 millions, it follows that the earnings of about 1,953,000 persons were less than 100 roubles per month. To give some idea of the value of that sum let us state that 100 roubles are equal to 41.7 kilogrammes (approximately 84 lb,) of the cheapest kind of wheat flour.

On November 1, 1937, the Council of People’s Commissars allocated another 600,000,000 roubles for 1938 and 100,000,000 for November and December, 1937 to raise the earnings of the low-paid workers to 100-115 roubles per month.

According to a report published in Voprosy Progdvizhenia of July, 1937, in a large Moscow engineering works, 77 per cent. of the workers earn less than 1 rouble per hour and only 4.8 per cent, more than 1.50 roubles.

Low wages may be explained by the backwardness of the country. But a wage system that deliberately sets out to destroy the solidarity of the workers, on which the working-class movement is based is an attribute to Stalin’s personal dictatorship.