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Ernest Lund

An Analysis of GM’s Proposal

Long Hours Depress Wages

(19 November 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 47, 19 November 1945, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

General Motors, through its president, Charles E. Wilson, has proposed that labor work a forty-five hour week at straight time with a slight hourly increase in order to earn as much per week as it did during the war on overtime wages.

Two weeks ago we discussed the peculiar reasoning behind this proposition. We pointed out that it was designed to appeal to the worker’s desire to earn living weekly wages and try, thereby, to induce the worker to forget how many hours he must work to get them.

We pointed out that Karl Marx had long ago shown that under capitalism the wage level is regulated but not determined, in the main, by the cost of living. [1] That is, the capitalist buys (i.e., hires) labor power in a market at a price whose value is based upon what it takes to produce and maintain the laborer.

However, there is another side to it. Wages are also affected by the competition among workers for the available jobs. This is really the law of supply and demand as it operates in the labor market. When there are many workers available and few jobs to be had, the bargaining power is all on the side of the capitalist. Those workers who are unemployed for a long time will be inclined to accept less in order to get a job and earn a living for themselves and families.

Industrial Reserve Army

Marx pointed out that it is the normal and necessary condition for capitalism to have this backlog of unemployed workers or the industrial reserve army, as he called it. It is the existence of this reserve army that acts as the great weight that Constantly tends to press wages down to and below the cost of living.

We saw what happened during the war when industry, absorbed the unemployed and the industrial reserve army vanished. Labor was placed in a very strong position to bargain for higher wages. If a worker did not get what he asked for on one job he could always go out and get another one for more money. “But wait,” you say, “what about the job freeze and the wage freeze?” Of course, we have not forgotten them. But they just prove our point. Capitalism could not operate during the war without an industrial reserve army to drive down wages to and below the cost of living. It was therefore necessary that in the place of this industrial reserve there was set up a government power to hold down wages and freeze workers to their jobs.

It is one of the economic laws of capitalism that the greater the number of unemployed workers, the greater is the pressure upon wage levels. Conversely, the fewer the number of unemployed workers, the more easily the employed workers are able to increase their wages.

While always seeking to make workers work longer hours, the capitalists, especially in times of depression, seek to lengthen the hours of work. By doing this they achieve two aims. In the first place, they find it easier to reduce the hourly rate of a worker who is, let us say, working forty-five hours a week than of a worker who is working thirty hours. The forty-five-hour man feels that even with a cut in hourly rates he is still able to earn a living by the long week he works. The thirty-hour man, however, will be inclined to resist an hourly cut all the more because his short week already leaves him with a slimmer weekly income. We see therefore, that even though a worker is paid by the hour and not by the week, longer hours tend to result in more work for less money.

The second aim that the capitalist achieves with longer hours is that the number of unemployed is greater. If fifty per cent of the workers are employed sixty hours a week and the other fifty per cent are not working at all, those not working will prove such a pressure upon wages that those working may in the end earn in sixty hours what they formerly earned in forty.

Hours and Wages

If, however, the workers were 100 per cent employed at thirty hours each, the absence of any army of unemployed to beat down wages would mean that all the bargaining power would be in labor’s hands and they could strike to increase hourly rates.

We see, therefore, that there is a relationship between long hours and low wages and between short hours and high wages. The longer the hours, the lower the hourly rate in the end. The shorter the hours, the higher the hourly rate in the end.

This, of course, is not merely theory any longer. The long years of experience of the trade union movement have proved it to the hilt. It is a lesson that every worker must remember. It is because of this that the auto workers must fight against the scheme of General Motors to dangle a long work week in front, of them as an inducement to get a big weekly wage. The long work week will only mean more unemployed auto workers. This in turn will only mean more men driven to desperation by want and used as a pressure to batter down the wage rates of the employed.

The auto workers, together with the workers in steel, rubber, radio and machinery – in short, the working class as a whole – should today stand for a thirty-hour week and an increase in hourly rates sufficient to maintain the wartime take-home pay. This is the road to more jobs, shorter hours and higher wages. The scheme of General Motors is the road to fewer jobs, longer hours and lower wages.

Next week we will consider Mr. Wilson’s arguments in behalf of longer hours as a means to increase production.


Footnote by ETOL

1. In the original version this sentence was: “We pointed out that Karl Marx had long ago shown that under capitalism the wage level is regulated but not determined, in the main, by the cost of living.” In the next installment in Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 50, 10 December 1945, p. 2, the author added a correction pointing out that the words “regulated” and “not” had not been in the original text but had been added by the editor at some stage during the production of the paper.

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