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Ernest Lund

A Socialist Analysis:

GM and Theory of Wages

(5 November 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 45, 5 November 1945, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The way to increase your weekly take-home pay is to work longer hours at straight time.

This is the answer of Charles E. Wilson, president of the billion-dollar General Motors Corporation, to the demand of the United Automobile Workers that hourly wages be increased by thirty per cent to maintain the workers’ weekly take-home pay.

The scheme which this clever capitalist shark has cooked up is designed to meet the demand of the workers that the weekly take-home pay enjoyed during the war on the basis of forty-eight hours, with time and a half over forty hours, be maintained.

The GM scheme is that workers maintain their wartime, take-home pay by accepting only a five to eight per cent increase in hourly rates but work forty-five hours a week at straight time.

This scheme is designed to divide the ranks of the workers by appealing to the more backward of them, who understand only one thing – how much they carry home at the end of the week. These worked are the same ones who could never get enough overtime during the war and were always ready to. ruin the piecework rates by turning out maximum production in an attempt to, make as much as possible without a single thought about next week and next month. These are, of course, the same types who only join a union when they are driven to it, who, when they join, complain about, paying dues, and who never show up at union meetings or cooperate in building the organization.

Because there still are many such workers and because this new scheme will probably become the latest propaganda weapon of big business in a nationwide campaign against a living wage, it is well that we immediately analyse the GM scheme and know the answers from labor’s angle.

What GM Wants

Mr. Wilson argues as follows: “You say that you need $45 a week take-home pay in order to live decently? Well, we agree to permit you to earn $45 a week.”

The worker, however, asks: “But how many hours am I expected to work for this amount?”

“Hours?” says Mr. Wilson, “what are you worried about hours for? Did yon not say you need $45 a week to get along on? Are we not permitting you to earn this? What difference does it make whether you work a few hours more or less?”

Mr. Wilson’s argument may sound ridiculous to union conscious workers. But it does not sound ridiculous to the capitalist class. It is based upon the economic laws that govern capitalist production, which always have stacked and as long as capitalism remains always will stack the cards for capital and against labor.

In the early period of capitalism, before the existence of a powerful trade union movement, the capitalists were able to enforce their own terms upon the workers. And they did it in accordance with the point of view from which Mr. Wilson, proceeds; i.e., pay the worker enough to live on and try to stretch out the hours as long as we can.

Basically, capitalism regards the worker as a machine with which to produce wealth and not as a human being. The worker is merely the motive power behind the screwdriver on a GM assembly line. If an automatic machine can be invented to tighten the same screw thousands of times a day as the worker does now, the machine will take the place of the worker. The machine would work forty-five hours or sixty hours or ninety hours without complaining.

It would simply work until it wore out or broke down.

What Is Labor

However, workers have the crazy idea that they are not machines. They think that they are human beings and entitled to the same right to live and enjoy life as the capitalist. Because of this, the workers have fought, not only for higher wages but for shorter hours. Since the birth of the labor movement the hours have, through countless strikes and struggles, been reduced from 16 a day to 14 to 12 to 10 and now to 8. Long experience has taught the worker that shorter hours are the gateway to a higher standard of living and a more dignified human existence.

As long as capitalism exists, the capitalist and the worker will never see eye to eye on this question. Regardless of what the capitalist may want to do, the laws of capitalist economy drive him to regard the worker as a wealth-producing machine. As long as workers are not slaves they will fight to live as human beings.

Capitalists do not deal with any other commodity on the same basis as they deal with the commodity called labor time or labor power. When GM contracts to. use electric power, it is understood that the cost of production of electric power is so much per kilowatt hour and that they must pay for it on the basis of the number of kilowatt hours used. GM does not say to the owners of the public utility company: “We will pay you enough weekly to live on. Why worry about how many kilowatt hours we will use?”

Let us assume that someone went to GM and asked: “At what price do you sell a car?”

GM would, answer: “That all depends upon how large a car you want. Obviously, we ask more for a Buick than for a Chevrolet.”

Suppose the buyer answered: “If you sell a Chevrolet for so and so much, why can you not sell a Buick for the same price? After all, the Buick is only a little larger than a Chevrolet. And then I really don’t see what the size of the car has to do with it. After all, a car is a car.”

A man who reasoned in this manner would be regarded as a candidate for a padded cell.

Capital-Labor Conflict

But is not Mr. Wilson’s proposition about the same? Does he not say in effect the following: “If you are willing to work forty hours for $45, there is no logical reason, why you cannot work forty-five hours for $45. I do not really understand what the length of the work week has to do with it. We are permitting you to earn enough to live on, are we not? What have you to lose by working the extra five hours?”

No one nominates Mr. Wilson for, a padded cell. On the contrary, the editors of the capitalist press and the professors of economics. in the colleges will write and lecture about Mr. Wilson’s brilliant grasp of economic problems.

We, also, do not nominate Mr. Wilson for a padded cell. We understand thoroughly the capitalist basis upon which he reasons. This concept of labor power as a commodity to be bought (i.e., hired) at its market value (determined mainly by the cost of living) and then worked for as long as the organized resistance of the workers permits, was long ago analyzed and explained by Karl Marx, the founder of scientific socialism.

In next week’s issue we will continue the analysis of the GM scheme with particular regard to these questions: Mr. Wilson’s argument for long hours and increased production as a means to raise the standard of living; the relationship between long hours and low wages and short hours and, high wages; and why labor power is the only commodity that is purchased at its value (i.e., its market value as determined, roughly, by the cost of living) but from which the purchaser extracts surplus value to the degree that he is able to exploit labor power.

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