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Chapter VII. The Standard of Living

The exchange value of labor power being determined by the labor time necessary to produce it, it follows that this time is, itself, determined by the standard of living of the worker. Therefore, if the standard of living is raised more time will be necessary to produce its equivalent than formerly. If it is lowered less time will be required.

As the time required is increased or diminished the volume of surplus value is correspondingly diminished or increased. Because of this there is unceasing strife between the workers and the employers. The effort of the workers is directed to elevating their standard of living, while the effort of the employers is in the opposite direction—to oppose a raise in the standard and whenever possible to force it to lower levels. For, as we have seen, higher wages mean lower profits for the boss—defeat, to an extent, of his purpose. The boss is in business for profit and, as long as he can prevent it, will permit nothing to interfere with the most complete fulfillment of his object.

In the relationship of the worker to his employer there are three features—wages, hours and conditions of employment—and upon each of these the interest of the worker and the interest of the employer are diametrically opposed. The boss will defend the measure as well as the principle (to him) of surplus value. His survival as employer depends upon his ability to do so successfully. Surplus value is the reward of his capitalist ownership. His success is measured by the degree of exploitation to which he can force his employes to submit—the larger the volume of surplus value, the more successful his enterprise. He does not only want profit but all the profit possible.

If. the worker demands an increase in his wages of $2.00 per day, the boss will deny and resist that demand. The worker will insist upon it. An industrial conflict results. At the end that side which has manifested the greater power will decide whether the demand is to be conceded or denied. If the workers have been able to combine themselves to such a degree that the boss is embarrassed to an extent where it is more profitable to yield and grant the concession than to continue the fight, he does so. These conflicts are not settled upon the basis of right or wrong. Their settlement is always a question of power. "Victory is with the side that has the strongest battalions."

If, however, the workers have not so combined that they are able to control the supply of labor, the employer will win. In the past year or more, working groups have sustained defeat after defeat until they are all more or less vanquished and intimidated. The craft unions have not been able to combine the workers to a sufficient extent and as a result there has been an universal depreciation of the American workers' living standard. This accounts for the tendency toward the more comprehensive industrial union form of organization.

Let us again use the figure employed in a former talk to illustrate the significance of the $2 daily increase in wages demanded by the worker.

The indicator, marking the increase, would be moved from the 3 hour mark to the 5 hour mark. The worker would now be paid $5 per day, to maintain our assumption that his labor creates an average of $10 values in a ten hour working day. He would now, therefore, be receiving the equivalent of 5 hours of his working time, so that in the course of the working day only five hours of his working time would be devoted to creating surplus value for the boss, where formerly he had devoted seven hours. This would mean that the boss was losing two hours of values every day which had previously accrued to him. This offers an unwelcome prospect to him and one which he is not inclined to accept resignedly. He is disposed to fight. But he must depend upon the workers for the forces to fight with. Naturally he welcomes division in the ranks of the workers, and it is to his interest to see that the workers are kept divided. It is worth something to him, for the preservation of his surplus value depends upon such division. A good deal of his expense account goes to provide and maintain such a condition amongst the workers. Unless he can secure workers to operate his plant or to carry on his business he, himself, cannot fight the workers with any hope of success. He depends upon the competition in the working class to assist him in resisting the wage and other demands of his working force or any part of them. While they do battle among themselves for the jobs he controls, he is contented. He never permits himself to be disturbed about a day when they will cease to fight and will combine to dethrone him. He knows what the workers must find out—that they defeat themselves.

As the employer must depend absolutely upon working class division he strives to maintain division in the ranks of the workers. He employs spotters and spies, he subsidizes news agencies, he organizes strike-breaking forces, he cultivates national and racial rivalries, he fosters everything that serves to split the workers.

Perhaps, this will assist us to an understanding of the unions that comprise the A. F. of L. These unions have functioned, and still do, to keep the workers divided. Control of these unions has enabled the capitalists time and again to defeat the workers and has been a more material asset to the employers than their reserves of strike-breakers, gunmen, etc. These unions have broken strike after strike far more effectively and at no expense whatever to the employers, except for the (comparatively) trifling amounts judiciously distributed in influential quarters. It is safe to say that in the measure of its service to the capitalists craft unionism has surpassed all other agencies of capitalism. They, as organizations, constitute the organized dismemberment of the working class. As long as they survive, the elimination of competition among the workers is impossible to any effective degree. Only other workers can defeat striking groups and the craft unions are always on hand either to supply them or assist them. Whenever workers are found in a struck establishment they are serving the capitalist interest. By this test is the craft union judged and proved a capitalistic agency and a working class enemy.

The Hours of Labor

Now, if instead of a $2 raise in wages the worker sought a decrease of two hours in the length of his working day, the boss would fight that proposition as energetically as he would a raise in wages, and for the same reason—it would mean a decrease in the volume of his surplus value. If we take the rectangle we have been using we have a figure representing a working day of ten hours:

But the new working day is only 8 hours and while the wage of the worker remains the same, there are now two hours less working time devoted to creating values for which he receives no compensation—the boss is deprived of the use of two hours labor time that had previously accrued to him in the form of surplus values. This is a setback to which he is not disposed to be reconciled. He refers to the workers' achievement as a form of holdup and claims to be paying ten hours pay for eight hours work. The worker is also inclined to believe that the boss' contention is correct—that he is now receiving ten hours pay for eight hours work. He is receiving a higher wage, nominally and relatively. Whether he is receiving a really higher wage will depend upon the purchasing power of his pay. He is receiving a higher hourly rate and to that extent has improved his condition—he has raised his wage 7½¢ per hour. Instead of getting ten hours pay for eight hours work, he is now getting paid for three out of eight instead of, as before, three hours out of ten. The boss, on the other hand, is now able to appropriate only five hours out of the eight hour day where he had been accustomed to appropriate seven hours out of ten. This is a change that the boss dislikes and which he does not propose to get used to if he can avoid it.

Wages are not affected when the hours of labor decrease, for the cost of producing labor power (or the laborer) for a day of eight hours is as great as for a ten hour day; consequently the exchange value of his labor is not disturbed, only the amount of surplus value—the rate of profit is lessened. This means a decided gain for the worker and, just as decisively, a loss for the boss.

Reducing the length of the working day also has the effect of providing more jobs for the workers and, to the extent that it does this, it lessens the competition among them. This result also is undesired by the boss, for it provides a more advanced position from which the workers may launch a new attack upon his surplus value.

To improve working conditions the boss must likewise forego some of his surplus value or divert it from the more promising prospects of investment. This he is unwilling to do and another contest is entered into with his workmen. For the boss will part with his profit, or any part of it, as cheerfully as with his right eye.

In the working place—on the job—the interest of the workers and the employers are in perpetual conflict. Between them there can be no peace. The class war will go on until either the workers are subdued or the bosses are eliminated. Every gain for one is a loss for the other.

The interest of the employers demands a divided working class—the interest of the workers a united working class. The bosses hate the I. W. W. and the boss' agents among the workers also hate the I. W. W. The I. W. W. stands for and is striving to bring about working class unity.


  • 1 What are the three points in the relationship between the worker and employer that count?
  • 2. Are their interests identical in regard to these?
  • 3. What effect has a raise in wages upon the boss' profit?
  • 4. What effect would shortening the workday have on the boss' profit if no other condition was changed?
  • 5. Are strikes settled upon the basis of right and wrong? How are they settled?
  • 6. Does the boss want the workers to unite? Why?
  • 7. What might happen if the working class was solidly united ?
  • 8. Does the boss defeat the workers in strikes? Who do?
  • 9. Does the boss strive to maintain division among the workers? What are some of the things he does?
  • 10. If the workday is reduced from 10 hours to 8 hours, and the wage is not reduced, does the worker get paid for 10 hours? Explain what happens.
  • 11. Explain the importance of his living standard to the worker.

Next page: Chapter VIII. Piece Work