Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Work, You Workers, Work (1948)

From the April 1948 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bonus systems, payment by results, co-partnerships, piece work, profit sharing, all these and other schemes we have known. Each and every one has the same objective—to get a little more effort out of the workers, to encourage them to expend their utmost on the job.

Of the co-partnership and profit sharing schemes we hear little these days. Some years ago they were quite popular propositions. Probably one of the largest and most widely publicised of these schemes was the one introduced by Lever Bros, at Port Sunlight. The idea was to share a portion of the profits produced in the industry amongst the workers. This should give them an interest in the business and encourage them to serve it more zealously.

The American journal “Fortune,” which, by any stretch of the imagination, cannot be considered a working class magazine, in its December, 1947, issue, deals with this Lever profit sharing scheme and its failure. On page 204:
“But he (W. H. Lever) seemed obsessed with sharing profits. He concluded that profit sharing was fine provided it resulted in better production . . .” 
and on page 207:
“The idea of direct profit sharing continued to obsess him even after Port Sunlight was built, and he decided to make qualified employees 'co-partners' with whom he shared some of the amount available for ordinary (common) dividends. For a while his scheme worked. The dividends, however, amounted to so little per capita that their effect on production and efficiency over a long time was debatable, and the practice was discontinued after Lever died.”
For the employer it was a matter of an additional investment. The workers were induced to consider that they had an identity of interest with him. The greater the increase in profits resulting from their better production and increased efficiency, the greater would be their dividend—and the dividend of the employers. Unless the amount of increased profit to the employer was greater than the amount he paid out in dividends to his employees, then it was a bad investment for him. Also to be taken into account, of course, was the fact that the “identity of interest” idea is a fine deterrent to strikes and is a means of persuading workers to soft pedal their wage demands. Labour disputes and high wages would tend to affect profits and the co-partner would fear that he might not get a good ”divi.” In practise, the amount received by the worker was so infinitesimal, that the scheme failed in its object At least, the Lever one did.

As we have said, not much is heard of these profit sharing schemes these days and in the collapse of the Lever scheme we see the reason. But a new method has arisen to encourage the workers to foster this idea of an identity of interest with their exploiters. A cheaper method, too. It does not even require that the employer shall disgorge the small amount of wealth that the profit sharing proposition necessitated.

Listen-in at Trade Union branch meetings, Trades Council meetings and other places where workers gather to talk about their wages and conditions. You will hear some one get on his feet and trot out this kind of thing: “ Now that it is 'OUR' industry, we must moderate our demands. We must work to get it on its feet. We must increase our production and efficiency. We are all share-holders now, we must work to make the industry pay. We must not ask for too much . . .” And so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

That is how it is put over today. Old man Lever allotted a portion of his dividends to get the utmost out of his workers. Today we find working class supporters and defenders of the Labour Party (they are all on the defensive now) falling over themselves to give of their damnedest without even the meagre dividend that Port Sunlight workers collected as an inducement.

If nationalised industry were engaged in producing goods or services for use, this point of view would be understandable. Then, better production and increased efficiency would result in more goods and better services for the workers themselves. But nationalised industry, as with all forms of capitalist industry, is engaged in the production of goods and services for sale with a view to a profit being made in the process. This fact is not disguised, not even by the advocates of nationalisation. The workers produce a quantity of wealth in excess of the amount they receive in the form of wages, salaries, etc. This surplus goes into State coffers and forms the fund out of which is shared the dividends to the investors in Government bonds.

True, an increase in production and efficiency in State industries does not mean an increase in the amount paid out as interests to bondholders. Neither does it mean an increase in wages. It may possibly result in an increase in the salary of the chairman of the “Board” or the “Executive," or in a fine, fat, five-figure pension to these "high” officials when they retire. It may also, by increasing the amount flowing into the State coffers, be a means of defraying national expenditure, and so help to alleviate the burden of taxation borne by the exploiting class. We know that finally it will result in an excess of commodities over and above the amount that the markets can absorb. Then we shall get from the Labour Party the same nauseating idea trotted out in slightly different words. “Sorry, fellows—an economic blizzard—tighten your belts and pull 'YOUR’ industry through.” Probably the blame will be put on to the Russians or maybe, the “Yanks,” It will be difficult for them to apportion the blame to the bankers as has been done in the past. It would sound rather puerile to tell us that it was “OUR” nationalised Bank of England that is holding up credit, or doing something or other to cause a financial and economic crisis. Anyway, it will be the workers who will be cajoled to make sacrifices to help "THEIR" industry through the difficult times. The rate of interest to the investor is guaranteed. He will not be worried. It is no longer his headache. He is the holder of “gilt edged.”

There are all sorts of things in store for the working class whilst Capitalism remains. There are no end to the reasons why they should work harder, more efficiently and be patient. Another war will make it necessary for the workers to make sacrifices to pull "THEIR” country through. After a war or after a trade depression there will be the need to produce more to recapture the foreign markets. It will always be possible to concoct some excuse for cracking the whip.

It is interesting to watch how this increased efficiency idea works out. For example, London’s nationalised transport. An agreement has recently been signed by the London Transport Executive and the Transport and General Workers Union adjusting the rates of pay of drivers and conductors of buses, coaches and trolley buses. At the same time, these contracting parties have agreed upon a letter to the effect that they will jointly recommend to the Minister of Transport that the existing rule shall be relaxed to enable eight standing passengers to be carried, instead of five as at present. This, so the letter says, is with the object of increasing the efficiency of the service to the public.

London Transport’s new 70-seat, eight feet wide trolley bus is now in operation in areas on the west Side of London. The Surrey Comet, reporting on the inaugural run of the first of these new vehicles, says (21/2/48):
"The extra width of six inches on the new buses is taken up by having the gangways four inches wider with an additional inch on each seat This should give greater comfort to the standing passenger . . .”
So better production and increased efficiency in this nationalised industry will mean that, (1) Drivers will drive bigger buses; (2) Conductors will pack in a few more passengers; (3) Passenger will be able to enjoy the increased standing comfort, or should we say more passengers will be able to enjoy the decreased discomfort, and (4) last, but by no means least, all passengers will pay their fares, thus increasing the takings per bus when the additional standing passengers are carried.

There is no advantage here that would make it advisable for the workers to moderate their demands for increased wages or better working conditions. We suggest to all workers that they should regard the State in the same way as they should regard any other employer, as an opponent who is out to get as much energy from his employees for the price that he pays, as is possible. The workers, in turn, should endeavour to get the highest price (wage) and best conditions of sale for the energy that they sell, as they possibly can. All increased efficiency should be directed to this end, and to the struggle to abolish the system of Capitalist exploitation.

To paraphrase Prime Minister Attlee :
"This year, let us all put into our struggle that spirit that will make our class free.”
W. Waters

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