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Chapter VIII. Piece Work

Besides hiring the laborer by the hour, day or week the capitalist also sometimes employs him as a piece-worker. Under the piece-work system the worker is paid at the rate of so much money for doing a certain specified thing—for digging a foot of ditch, molding a casting, sawing logs, cutting cordwood, riveting a foot of tank, etc., etc.—and fulfilling the requirements as to quality with regard to the work done. That is to say, the excavation must be of certain dimensions, the casting must be perfect, and so on. For defective work the boss will not pay, so the worker must be careful to turn out work that will at least escape penalty. For condemned products he does not get paid at all and for "culls" he receives less than the contract price. Therefore, he will take pains to do "good work." The difference between the time-worker and the piece-worker is that the former is paid for the time he works, while the latter is paid for the amount of his production according to a standard of quality already set and agreed upon.

John Smith, we will say, is employed as a day laborer to dig a ditch at a daily wage of $3 for an eight hour day. He digs an average of two 10-foot "sections" a day, or 20 feet of ditch for a day's work.

If the boss says to him, "John, from now on I will pay you 15 cents a foot for digging this ditch," and Smith closes with the offer. From that time on we are likely to hear Smith, unless he is above the average, reason something like this: "Now, I am working for myself. The more I do the more I make. So here goes, John Smith, for a big day's pay." That night John measures up his excavation and finds he has dug three sections or thirty feet of ditch and earned $4.50. He feels elated, for he has received $1.50 more than he has been receiving. He makes up his mind that he can do still more. The boss, who has contracted to dig the ditch at 30 cents per foot, has increased his return on Smith's labor by an amount equal to his laborer's increase—he is now making $4.50 where previously he had made $3.00.

But Smith increases his digging until finally he excavates 40 feet of ditch per day, bringing his daily wage up to $6, and increasing the boss' profit to a similar amount Smith feels that he is doing well, and the boss ought to feel that he too is doing very well. But it does not work out that way. Though his own profit has doubled, the boss feels that Smith who is drawing twice "the going wages for ditch laborers" is getting entirely too much. So he approaches Smith and tells him that he cannot afford to continue paying him 15 cents a foot. He then offers him 10 cents a foot as "the very best" he can do. He will suggest to Smith that a whale of a digger like Smith can earn good money at that price. Smith agrees to the cut and then starts out with accelerated speed to approximate his former earnings at the new price. He digs 50 feet per day. He is now making $5 per day, at his top speed. When the boss suggests another cut Smith is in humor—to take a rest. So the boss hires Jones at the "going wage for ditch diggers," but he insists that Jones shall dig each day approximately 35 feet of the ditch—an average which Smith's efforts enabled him to determine. In this way the piece-work system is used to set the standard of production in industry.

Marx says of piece-work, "they (piece-wages) furnish to the capitalist an exact measure for the intensity of labor," and he adds farther on, "since the quality and intensity of the work are here controlled by the form of the wage itself, superintendence of labor becomes in great part superfluous."

While Smith was digging the ditch by the foot he did not need a foreman to direct or to urge him. He set his own mark by determining how much he would endeavor to do—he was his own pace-maker.

The piece-working laborer is not concerned about the shorter or longer working day, for his wage is not determined by hours but by products. An hour or two, more or less, is only incidental to the amount which he has set himself to make for the day's work. A long day or a shorter day is only important when he has realized this amount or failed to. To, again, quote Marx: "Given piece-work it is naturally the personal interest of the laborer to strain his labor power as intensely as possible; this enables the capitalist to raise more easily the normal degree of the intensity of labor. It is, moreover, now the personal interest of the laborer to lengthen the working day, since with it his daily or weekly wages rise."

The piece-work system makes for intensified, unremitting effort in the working place. As Marx points out in another place, it "is the form of wages most in harmony with the capitalist mode of production."

Often in the industries it happens that capitalist management will put processes on a piece-rate basis so that the workers engaged in these processes by hurried, diligent application make wages far in excess (comparatively) of the wages paid time laborers on the same work. After careful observation, over sufficiently long periods, an average day's work for the laborers employed on these processes is worked out, which these workers must approximate. Piece-work is a device which enables the capitalists to determine the utmost capacity of the most capable workers; they then make something less than that the standard for all and the measure of competency.

The Bonus System

There is another form of piece-work, or, perhaps better, an extension of the piece-work system—the bonus system. This is usually an arrangement whereby the workers are induced to greater effort by paying them a "bonus" for production in excess of the amount set for a day's, week's or month's work, Suppose, for instance, so many feet are set for a month's work for a miner. If he drives a greater number of feet he is paid so much per foot for the number of feet by which he exceeds that standard. If the miners are influenced by this system they soon find that they have increased the number of feet they must drive in stope or raise in a month. It is nothing more nor less than an attempt to speed up the workers. If they "fall" for it they have to work harder to hold the job than they had to before.

Profit-sharing; Stock-Buying

Profit-sharing and stock-buying propositions are also schemes to induce the workers to apply themselves more diligently and intensely in the working place. These usually depend upon terms of continuous employment. Besides the speeding up which these proposals are intended to develop they are intended as well to act as preventatives of a labor turnover. The labor turnover is proven by capitalist experience to be the most costly item in the operation of industry. Get that—the changing of only part of the personnel of a working force is the most expensive item in the operation of large industries. It is important that the workers be made to realize that the complex character of the working force in modern industry is the capitalists' weakest point. The capitalists must strive all the time to keep this force divided. If they can do this, they are safe. Whenever they cannot, they are lost. If the working force of a modern industry were thoroughly organized so that they could act as a unit and withdraw their labor power it would be impossible to replace them at will. It would take years to do so. Here is where the craft unions especially prove their usefulness to the capitalists. They function to prevent this.

Family Pressure

Side by side with profit-sharing and stock schemes runs the policy of manning key processes with men of family. It is becoming a fixed policy of big industrial enterprises to man their industrial establishments with married men whose sense of responsibility will make them docile and submissive and whose individual power of resistance is less than would be that of unmarried men. Profit-sharing, stock-buying, home-building, and all other such schemes have for their object the tying of the working force to their jobs, more particularly those in the "key" labor classifications. Imagine a worker in the Standard Oil refinery at Whiting, Indiana, who has had the "privilege" of buying a share or two of stock as a "reward for faithful service," feeling himself equally interested in and benefitting by Standard Oil as does John D. Rockefeller. Such workers are to the capitalists what the "capper" and the "come-on" used to be to the gamblers who infested the county fairs and "cleaned up" on the rustics when the circus was in town. They betray their fellows without benefitting from their betrayal.

A wise working class movement will educate its membership to the purpose underlying and inspiring these wily schemes of the capitalists and will eternally drive for that unity which will enable the workers to solve the problems that only the workers can solve, and they only when they have first achieved solidarity as workers—in a working class union.


  • 1. What is the difference between piece-work and daywork?
  • 2. Which is the more desirable for the boss?
  • 3. Does the piece-worker strive for a shorter workday? Why?
  • 4. Does the piece-worker work harder than the dayworker? Why?
  • 5. What is the bonus system? How does it affect the worker?
  • 6. What advantages does piece-work give the boss?
  • 7. What is the object of profit-sharing, stock sales and home building schemes?
  • 8. Why are married men preferred to single men in large industries?
  • 9. What is the boss' weakest point?
  • 10. Is this why he fears industrial unionism? Explain.
  • 11. What is the most expensive item in modern industry? Explain.

Next page: Chapter IX. Origin of New Capital