What's Wrong With The Wage System?

In our efforts to find solutions to the problems that we face at work, naturally one of the things we frequently discuss is how much we are paid for the work that we do, and this means discussing the wage system. IWW members have always believed that these problems can only be resolved by the abolition of the wage system. It is our purpose here to briefly explain just what we mean by that.

Wages and salaries are the money given to us by our employers as compensation for the time and energy we expend working for them, and in their drive for greater profits our employers aim at getting the most work out of us as possible whilst paying us the minimum necessary in return. Thus there is a conflict of interests between employers who wish to pay the least whilst getting the most, and employees who naturally aren't too keen on working for peanuts. Anyone who doubts this should remember that the labour market is a market just like any other, where we all wish to buy cheaply and sell dearly.

There are widely varying rates of pay, even among people doing exactly the same jobs. A number of reasons are often cited to justify why there are differing rates of pay. Education and training is one, though this education is largely supported out of taxes we pay; those who receive this education really benefit twice. Meanwhile, should employees with three or four years at university receive more than employees with a seven year apprenticeship?

"The Wage System Has Destroyed Us"

As a veteran steelworker called Ed Mann said in his book, We Are The Union, "The wage system has destroyed us. If I work hard I'll get ahead, but if I'm stronger than Jim over here, maybe I'll get the better job and Jim will be sweeping floors. But maybe Jim has four kids. The wage system is a very divisive thing."

Merit and hard work are obviously not the only things which determine wage rates. Personal favouritism can often play an even greater role. This is especially evident in companies which have introduced Performance Related Pay. Some people do receive higher pay rises simply because their immediate supervisors are scared of them, and there are many people who have risen up the ladder due to being in with the boss, but PRP gives prejudiced managers the means to discriminate and often women and black workers receive a lot less than white males.

Another argument is that some people have more responsibility or take more risks. If that were true then those who work at the most disagreeable and hazardous jobs would be the most highly paid. Yet, who helps prevent disease the most: a refuse collector or a doctor? Given that the present distribution of wealth bears very little relation to the value of people's work, is there any way of measuring the worth of the work that people do?

Should the people who produce what society needs the most be the best paid? This might mean that agricultural workers producing our food would be among the highest paid, but they aren't, and those who manufacture clothing are often immigrant women working for very low pay in sweat shop conditions with no union.

Apart from the fact that it doesn't pay us enough, the wage system is totally irrational. It is a hodgepodge of differing amounts paid to people for a range of often contradictory reasons. The only sure conclusion that can be gathered from the present wage system is that the further up the corporate ladder from actually producing goods or services a person is, the more money he or she takes home. Most of us are really only paid just about enough to meet our basic needs. Advertising makes sure we consume as much as possible and the widespread extension of credit makes sure that we spend most of our lives in debt.

Besides being irrational, the wage system is completely undemocratic. We are constantly told by the media and politicians that we are free citizens of a democracy. But this democracy ends for us the moment we enter the workplace. At work not only do we not make the decisions, but we have to obey the orders of people we did not elect to rule over us. Who hasn't been told that if we don't like it then we can go and find another job?

Yet, short of having the money, energy and know-how to set ourselves up in business, we haven't really got much choice except to work for someone else. It is as well for us to remember exactly what those words "work for someone else" actually mean. Although we are told that we live in a free country, the reality is that slavery, or more specifically wage-slavery, is alive and well.

"The Roots Of The Soviet Gulags & The Nazi Gas Chambers Lie Within The Wage System"

When we are employed, we get as wages only a part of the value of what we produce. Besides our wages, the fruits of our labour go to pay for raw materials, for research and development, for new technology (often as a means to cut down on wage costs through replacing people with machines) things our communities need (and sometimes don't need) paid for in the form of taxes, and for profits taken by our employers. It is true that in any social system we would not be able to receive as wages the complete value of the produce of our labour, for all systems require maintenance, research and development etc. Also those who are unable to work, either because they are too young, too old, or unhealthy need supporting. But the decision as to how to divide up among these categories the wealth produced as a result of our work is not made by us. Instead it is decided by those who employ us, and they naturally keep as much as possible for themselves.

Finally, the wage system as a whole defines our society. Who can really determine what we are worth? To classify people according to worth is undemocratic, anti-human, and a major cause of industrial unrest. There is only one step from classifying people according to their worth to deciding to exterminate the unworthy. The roots of the Soviet Gulags and the Nazi gas chambers lie within the wage system.

Until those of us who produce the world's wealth can decide for ourselves how it will be used, there is no such thing as a fair wage or salary, and this is why we wish to abolish the wage system.

The present undemocratic and exploitative wage system has to go. What the IWW offers in its place is not a blueprint of a perfect society, but an opportunity for something better. We believe that a decentralisation of power is essential, and this is why we promote Industrial Democracy.

Industrial Democracy means that we will have the responsibility of running our workplaces ourselves, with the freedom to decide how they will be run, for what purpose, and how we will share the benefits. Since human beings are remarkably ingenious, we believe different groups of people will come up with different democratic alternatives to the present way of distributing wealth.

We believe in the decentralisation of power because the distribution of wealth in society is not a reflection of the worth of the work that people do, but simply of the power that some people hold over others. No one should be forced to sell themselves to someone else in order to make a living.

Putting an end to the wage system means putting an end to the system whereby we have to compete with our friends, neighbours and colleagues as we sell our talents, our time and sometimes even our bodies just to earn a living.

We should never forget that we have power. Through getting together and standing up together we can influence the distribution of the world's wealth. People do just that every day of the year. The abolition of the wage system is really about taking more control over our own lives and winning our freedom from the nightmare of wage slavery in the process. The more of us who get together, the closer the abolition of the wage system will be.

Learn more: Industrial Workers of the World