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Albert Gates

Incentive Pay and UAW Convention

(September 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 36, 6 September 1943, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The wage freeze inaugurated under the auspices of President Roosevelt and the actions of the WLB in refusing to grant the demands of workers for pay increases under the hold-the-line order, have only intensified the campaign from some quarters for the adoption by the unions of incentive pay schemes.

Incentive pay, which is only another name for piecework and speed-up schemes, is nothing new to the auto workers, even though the name may be new. It is merely another way of describing a more intense exploitation of workers, getting more production out of them for little or no cost.

Interestingly enough, the idea of incentive pay and the campaign which has developed for it, originated with big business and its representatives in Washington. They first presented the plan to Washington, where it received endorsement. Big business said: Since it is impossible for the workers to get wage increases, we can promise them a few cents more if they increase their individual and collective productivity.

This wasn’t the ordinary piecework and speed-up system. This was something more scientific, said these moguls of wealth. Under the old system, reward for greater production was individual; it depended on how much the worker produced. Whatever increase in production was achieved by the worker, he was paid individually.

The old piecework system, however, led to a vicious situation in the shops. Individual workers went the whole hog in trying to increase their pay by greater production. It meant driving themselves to no end. But the real nature of the piecework system was that as the individual worker increased his production, the new increase was regarded as normal and the worker, in relation to his productivity, suffered a continual wage cut.

The boss used the piecework system to create a back-breaking competition between workers in the shop. It led to conflicts between the workers. The net result of this was that the bosses obtained great productivity out of labor, which enormously increased their profits.

At the end of it all, the worker had nothing to show for his intense labor except a “broken back.” He found that he gave his best to the boss and then found himself out of work because he could no longer keep up the pace he set by his endeavor to get more wages through the piecework system.

Bosses to Gain

The aim of incentive pay is to create the basis for a group or collective speed-up ” to reward the workers for increased production on a group basis. The essential features of the piecework, speed-up system remain the same. But faster workers, under the new system, will be counted upon to drag up to their level the slower workers. After a given period, if the group fails to reach a standard set by the boss, they will get no increase of pay.

However, if the group does meet the standard, then not only does the group gain a slight increase, but the bosses, who have nothing at all to do with such production gains, would share in the increases obtained by the speed-up. Thus the scheme is another means of increasing the incomes and wealth of business.

The whole scheme is a conscious fraud on the part of big business, because increased productivity means greater profits! In the end, the workers get no further than they were in the beginning. This is borne out by the fact that for some years now, especially during the war, the workers have increased productivity at a high-rate. But, as the AFL pointed out, the workers have not shared in this great increase in productivity. The bosses have taken all the gravy out of this increased production in the form of greater profits. They now want to build this system up in a big way”the bigger and more universal its application, the bigger its profits will be.

The campaign for incentive pay, however, has struck a snag in the auto industry. There is hardly an auto worker, who does not know the meaning of piecework and speed-up.

He had his fill of it in the pre-union days at Ford. He knows that the auto industry was known as a “young man’s industry” because of the back-breaking speed-up instituted by the auto magnates. He knows that he was regarded as an old man long before his time; that he was thrown out of work in the prime of life and could not get a job. And he knows that after all the work and production he contributed to enrich the bosses, he had nothing to show for his labor.

The great achievement of the UAW was that it busted up the speed-up system and the piecework system. The union understood that these were nothing but a clever means of robbing the workers even more than they are normally robbed by profit-hungry industrialists. That is why the ranks and many leaders of the union are now fighting all attempts to introduce this vicious scheme to enrich the bosses in the auto industry. But the fight is becoming more difficult because of the forces now supporting the bosses.

The Role of the Stalinists

Next to big business, the outstanding supporters of incentive pay are the Stalinists. They have done everything in their power to put over this boss scheme on the workers, and nowhere have they been so active as in the UAW, especially in Detroit.

The big chief of the Communist Party, Earl Browder, made it a point to intervene from the outside to try to force incentive pay on the UAW. The Communist Party members in the union and their cohorts followed up this campaign.

These enemies of the best interests of labor now argue that it is necessary that the bosses get their profits! After all, the bosses might sabotage the war effort if they are not permitted to get all they can off the backs of the workers!

But the real interests of the Stalinists, of course, is Stalin and his regime in Russia. They cry for more production, not because they give a damn about anyone or anything else. They are only concerned with more and more production in order to increase war supplies for Stalin. What happens to the workers in the meantime is none of their concern. And that is understandable. Those who support the slavery of the Russian workers have no objections to the enslavement of the American workers.

Frankensteen’s Position

The most prominent leader within the union to champion incentive pay is Richard Frankensteen. But there is a reason, even if not a good one, behind his madness. Frankensteen is in charge of organization of the aircraft industry. This industry is notorious for its low wage scales and high rate of profit.

Organization of the aircraft workers depends in a large measure on the matter of wage scales. Specifically, it means carrying on a fight against the wage freeze and the hold-the-line order which keeps these workers underpaid. It means fighting against wage differentials and for equalization of wages”bringing up the wages of aircraft workers to the minimum basic wage in the auto industry.

Since Frankensteen is not committed to a militant struggle around these issues, he seeks to overcome his problem in aircraft by championing incentive pay. By adopting the newly named and glorified scheme for the old piecework and speed-up systems, he hopes to meet the most important problem in the organization of the aircraft workers.

Such a policy is an illusory one. Production in aircraft is at an extremely high rate, as is evidenced by the great number of planes produced. The workers in this industry, as in all other industries, have never shared in the enormous production for which they are responsible. Yet Frankensteen’s proposal would result in an even greater speed-up for them and a proportionately lesser share in the product of their toil.

As a matter of fact, no one has dared to criticize the American workers for their failure to produce. There is hardly a person who is not amazed with the tremendous efficiency and productivity of the American worker. Only the Stalinists have systematically spread the poison that the workers are “cheating on the job” and that incentive pay should be introduced to increase production!

Danger Ahead

There is, however, one grave danger in the present situation. The wage freeze and the hold-the-line order is making life unbearable for hundreds of thousands of workers whose wages in no way meet their needs under the constantly rising cost of living.

The conspiracy of big business, the Administration and even some labor leaders against pay increases has created a situation where the only way left open for such increases is through some form of the incentive pay schemes.

President Philip Murray of the CIO, who spends most of his time getting rebukes from the President and the Administration, already has signified his acceptance of one form or another of incentive pay.

By this action Murray is conveying to the rest of the CIO that he wants it to accept the same situation.

This is a grave danger to the union movement. For, in addition to the fact that it is a vicious piecework and speed-up system calculated to enrich the bosses, it is also an instrument designed to bust the union movement by breaking down the wage scales and working conditions of labor that have been, won after many years of heroic struggle.

The fight against incentive pay and against all those who advocate it is, above all, a struggle for the union movement, for the victories it has won and for the workers whom it represents.

Fight for the Union

There is only one genuine working class and union road open to the labor movement. Reject any and all schemes for incentive pay! Not incentive pay, but wage increases!

The hypocrisy of the Administration is revealed in its support of incentive pay schemes. Its opposition to wage increases is based on the grounds that consumer goods are not fully available and wage increases would only aggravate this condition. It would be inflationary. But incentive pay is supported on the ground that it would be based on increased production.

What the Administration fails to add is that such increased production is not in the consumer field, therefore no changes would take place. There would be no increase in consumer goods.

The Administration hopes the workers will overlook this little discrepancy behind the scheme to increase profits.

The workers are not getting anything for nothing. They are grossly underpaid.

The great wealth produced by its intense labors’ goes into the hands of the bosses and industry. The great increase in their productivity has been usurped by big business.

The auto workers, by rejecting incentive pay at their convention and by adopting a program of struggle for wage increases, will be giving the greatest service not only to all the workers in the industry but to all American workers. They will be safeguarding the union movement and the great gains made by it! Rejection of incentive pay is a defense of unionism and the workers against big business and its servants. Whether they be capitalist politicians, labor leaders or the Stalinist Communist Party!

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