Published on May 21st, 2018 | by Reid Kotlas0
Working People Deserve More
More pay! More Free time! More Control!
You deserve more.
Almost everyone who works for a living earns much, much less than they could. You earn much less than you could. How will you change that?
For more than 40 years, wages have flatlined, while productivity has grown unabated. Yet from the end of the second World War to the 1970s, wages increased at the same rate as productivity. The more productive labor became, the more you earned for your labor. Not anymore.
“From 1948 to 1979, productivity rose 108.1 percent, and hourly compensation increased 93.4 percent. From 1979 to 2013, productivity rose 64.9 percent, and hourly compensation rose 8.2 percent… Much of this productivity growth accrued to those with the very highest wages. The top 1 percent of earners saw cumulative gains in annual wages of 153.6 percent between 1979 and 2012–far in excess of economy-wide productivity.”
Labor is more productive now than ever, but workers today earn no more than their parents or grandparents did. For the overwhelming majority, income growth is far below average. For a tiny minority, it is far above average.
To the extent that incomes grew, it was mostly because people worked longer hours, not because their wages increased.
Labor has become more productive because the production process grows increasingly capital-intensive. Labor is increasingly supplemented by technology. Workers become less and less important to the extent that they are mere laborers, mere cogs in the machine. That means the work of developing new technology and applying advanced technology creatively becomes more important, while repetitive, mechanical, mindless drudgery becomes less important.
This could mean freedom for workers from undesirable toil, and the unleashing of their full creative power. Yet the overwhelming majority of people have to sell their labor to live, and have to take the work they can get. They do not own the companies that employ them, and hence do not enjoy the benefits of new technologies.
Most workers cannot compete in the most highly-valued labor markets, so the competition for the less important, less desirable work becomes more intense, driving down wages in those markets. Because employers can hire such workers on the cheap, they have less of an incentive to employ labor saving technology.
Wage growth is weak whether or not you have a college degree. Even high-earning workers are getting fleeced: the wage gap between them and the top 1%—mostly corporate managers and finance professionals—grew faster and more consistently than any other over the same period. The more workers who enter the highly-valued labor markets by obtaining education and credentials, the more competition for those jobs drives down their pay as well. Solidarity among workers within those fields to drive up wages, whether through unions or professional associations, only increases the incentive for employers to invest in labor-saving technology to offset rising labor costs.
Workers across the board earn less pay and work longer hours than technological development could allow. Why should this be the case? Why shouldn’t workers benefit from growing productivity?
President Trump has made low wages a live political issue, but will either political party do anything about it? Before the 1970s, wages grew at the same rate under Democratic and Republican administrations. After the 1970s, wages were stagnant under Democratic and Republican administrations.
Had wages continued to grow as they had before 1979, the poverty rate would have been zero by the mid-80s. Instead, the state has had to rely on extensive use of welfare programs to offset stagnant or even falling wages at the bottom, and has had to continuously increase welfare spending simply to prevent the poverty rate from increasing. Poor workers are more educated, more productive, and work longer hours, but the vast majority of them remain poor and grow poorer.
This was no accident, but the result of inadequate political leadership.
The minimum wage has consistently fallen against inflation, dragging down wages more generally. Legal restrictions have made it more difficult to organize and sustain labor unions, undermining the ability of workers to negotiate the terms of their employment. International trade agreements have been used to weaken the bargaining position of workers in all countries by pitting them against each other. Top marginal tax rates were slashed, motivating the very top earners to compete for a larger share of the wage fund. Financial deregulation has meant greater rewards for finance professionals while the rest of us have shouldered greater risk without any economic benefit, and to our clear detriment. Workers are misclassified as independent contractors, victims of wage theft with little protection or recourse, and are arbitrarily disqualified from receiving overtime pay.
People at the very top have benefited substantially from rising productivity, while the overwhelming majority are doing no better, or worse, than ever. The share of wealth earned as profits has grown at the expense of wages, and among wage earners, the share taken by the very highest earners has grown at the expense of the overwhelming majority.
Why should this be the case? How much could you be earning today, had wages simply continued to grow along with productivity? How much better off would you be if everyone earned more, if everyone were free of poverty, if everyone contributed to and shared in the benefits of technological progress?
There is no shortage of wealth but working people have effectively no control over how it is distributed. All they can do is compete against each other for whatever is available, while those at the top use every means at their disposal to maintain and grow their share.
So long as those at the top seek to maximize profits at the expense of wages, keeping labor cheap, they impede technological and social progress. They only introduce labor saving technology when it is cheaper than the human alternative, and they do all they can to keep labor as cheap and servile as possible.
The demand for higher wages is what drives society forward. If the wage earners themselves were in charge, they would have every reason to fully exploit technological advancements, to even more rapidly increase productivity, minimizing undesirable labor while maximizing their incomes.
This realization was at the heart of the socialist movement that emerged during the industrial revolution and that reached its peak in the early 20th century.
Workers increasingly realized that they could improve their bargaining position relative to their employers by organizing together to bargain collectively, rather than competing against each other.
Yet more than this, they realized that there was no good reason for workers and employers to be two separate groups of people standing opposed to each other. They realized that the organized workers could cooperatively manage their work, and that way, all would share in the benefits of that cooperation, rather than one group benefiting at the expense of society.
At first, they sought to win the capitalists over to this vision, and to use their democratic rights to advocate for it. Yet the workers, whether organizing merely to bargain for higher wages or for political change, were met with violent repression over and over again, and the conditions of their labor continued to deteriorate. The capitalist class only seemed to care about democracy so long as they remained in control, and the workers remained subordinate.
The working class struggle continued to develop, and with it, the movement for socialism. By the end of the 19th century, they had managed to reduce the working day, which could be as long as 18 or 20 hours, to 10 hours, and fought to further reduce it to 8 hours
On May 1st, 1886, American workers planned a mass strike in favor of the 8 hour day. They were met with violent repression. A few days later a rally was held at the Haymarket Square in Chicago to oppose that repression. Police ordered the crowd to disperse. Then, an unknown person threw a bomb into the path of the police, killing one officer and injuring six others. The police fired on the crowd, killing four and injuring many as they fled.
The police could not discover the source of the bomb, but decided to make an example of eight radical organizers, claiming they incited the crowd to violence with their agitational rhetoric. The eight men were found guilty for exercising their first amendment rights, and seven were sentenced to death. Workers at the time knew why they had to hang: to serve as an example. This is what happens when you step out of line. Yet this threat did not dissuade them: another mass strike for the 8 hour day was planned for May 1, 1890.
At the same time, the workers’ movement in Europe had grown strong and animated, organizing their own political parties for socialism. This culminated in 1889, when these parties united to form an international party. At this Congress, attended by four hundred delegates, it was decided that the 8 hour day must be the first demand. A delegate moved that this demand be expressed in all countries through a general strike. The delegate of the American workers called attention to the decision of his comrades to strike on May 1.
The Congress decided to declare this the date of an international general strike, in which the workers of the world would stand together for the benefit not only of themselves, but all of humanity, and which the international working class would observe every year until the final May Day, when the working people will have won over the immense majority, and begin to lead the world toward socialism.
The socialist movement collapsed before this could occur, and socialism has fallen into disrepute for having failed. Yet the conditions of working people continue to deteriorate. The technological progress we wrestle with today is but the continuation of the industrial revolution, but the working class is no longer organized around the goal of leading this revolution, and using it to emancipate all of humanity. Instead, working people remain subordinate, depressed, desperate, or at best, satisfied with far less than they could have.
May Day is still celebrated around the world, but the vision of freedom it represented has been largely forgotten. Yet so long as people hope to free themselves through their own work, and so long as they find themselves competing not only against employers, but against each other, for the ability to do so, this vision cannot disappear. Working people can take control of their own lives, but only if they realize the value of cooperation and organize together for their common benefit.
Working people make this world run, but we do not decide how it is run. We do not enjoy the full fruits of our own labor. We can change that, if we decide to do so, and organize.
Working people unite! Join the Socialist Party! Together, we can free the world!
Note: The claims about compensation and productivity trends are derived from the Economic Policy Institute’s 2014 paper, “Raising America’s Pay: Why It’s Our Central Economic Policy Challenge” by Josh Bivens, Elise Gould, Lawrence Mishel, and Heidi Shierholz. Available here: https://www.epi.org/publication/raising-americas-pay/