Labor - Time That Pays Money Ruthless Criticism

MSZ (March 1984)

Labor – Time That Pays Money

“As desirable as more leisure time may be for a lot of people, the will to work, efficiency and endurance must remain the recognized goals of our society.” (Lambsdorff, German Minister of the Economy)

And what if someone is not willing to recognize this? Too bad! For not much depends on the pompous recognition of values and goals.

But when somebody thinks he can work in order to benefit from life, when he wants to use work as a means for achieving a purpose, for the purpose of leading an agreeable life to be maintained by the fruits of his and others’ joint labor, he does not find much opportunity to do it. The “working world” he is confronted with neither intends him to organize his work so as to make it as interesting, comfortable and short as possible, nor does it guarantee him a jolly life.

This is why the question of the value of such oft-invoked values as “the will to work”, “efficiency” and “endurance” does not even present itself to a large majority of people in “our society.” Because the decision about the work to be done has long since been settled in practice: the “wage dependent” majority must work and persist all their lives with the “possibilities” presented to them, regardless of whether they regard this as the realization of lofty goals of life or not.

This “must” is produced by money, for which a wage “recipient” must work because he cannot live without it. The sum of money which he earns has two obviously conflicting sides:

It is in the nature of the matter that the two never coincide; that the company’s business calculations always restrict the vital necessities of the wage workers: labor time is paid in the interests of profit, i.e. as cheaply as possible; the life of the worker’s family must accept this since the worker has nothing to sell except his labor power, and all the means of putting it to use are the property of the company which he must make himself available to. No wonder wages keep on renewing the necessity for the recipient to turn up at “his” job day after day. In this respect, people like ministers of the economy who preach working morale and exalt virtues like “the will to work,” “efficiency” and “endurance” needn’t bother. After all, what they are in charge of is capitalism.

The man-hour and the hourly wage

A worker earns money to live on at an hourly rate, basically. He trades labor during a certain time for a price which is paid for this time. This is anything but a deal with fixed services for each side; it is a very one-sided business.

What is fixed is the price for one working hour, which is negotiated by the entrepreneur and the unions for various wage brackets. But everything is open on the other side. The company has not purchased a specific amount of labor, but rather the right to make use of the worker himself by the hour. For a few dollars an hour, the worker sells, and the company buys, the liberty to decide on how his energy and abilities are put to use. For this purpose, the company mobilizes all available technical achievements. It fills up each working hour, minute and second with work as effectively as possible; organizes the means of production in such a way that there is no unnecessary idling; simplifies the work in order to accelerate it; makes it more productive by using better machines in order to produce more goods using the same energy from the living working machines; employs an army of foremen to make sure that the living working equipment exerts itself accordingly. It is a matter of course for the lawful users (“employers”) of labor to fight, and declare to be impossible, any change in the hourly wage in favor of the sellers of labor – and they are just as persistent in changing the kind of labor to be done in each hour in their own favor, thereby reducing the wage in proportion to the work to be done and to its proceeds. This results in that thing which is treated by everyone as being the greatest good and one big opportunity for the worker: a job.

For those who “have” one, only one thing is sure in view of this entrepreneurial freedom. They cannot expect any certain, lasting relationship between their wages and the required work; at all times, they must satisfy the requirements of “the job,” and come to grips with these being constantly changed. If one proves to be useful for this work, one gets paid for one’s hours of work.

Thus, all illusions about piecework pay that used to accompany this kind of payment have disappeared in modern factories. When the most sophisticated means of production are used to fix the division of labor as firmly as the simple tasks dictated by an individual job, there is no more room for the idea that one’s earnings somehow depend on the particular qualification one acquired before and hoped to make use of. The calculation of the wage in accordance with the number of pieces taken care of has become a mere matter of form, especially since not only the restricted task is fixed but also the speed of the work, to a large extent. The organization of this “technical necessity” conveys the company’s calculations to the living appendages of the machinery. The company relates the payment of the particular hourly wage to the worker’s work without granting him any room to use his specific energy or ability to influence the amount of his wages. It is not even possible for him to divide up his work, in view of such ingenious inventions as conveyor piecework, not to mention to exceed the predetermined norm. The latter may be defined as 115% or 130% of the standard wage, but it allows a worker only one alternative. He either proves capable of fulfilling it, so that the co-operation with the next man who needs to deal with the workpiece works out right; or he needs another job. For the work he must do is not only evaluated, it is also dictated. This result of “technology” provides those dependent on wages with the experience that each job involves an average performance determined by the employers of their labor power, and that it is a matter of course to increase this average performance as the activity is made even more one-sided – and to classify the new activity in expert “ergonomic” evaluations in a lower wage bracket, the less “partial stress” is required. As if certain detrition by one-sided partial tasks made his work easier, the modern proletarian is given a “fair wage” which is lower than before “because” he does not provide his employer with some ability or other! He is not only the victim of the precise adaptation of production to the needs of business, he is also served the ideology of his work being paid for in the palpable form of a wage cut.

The worker’s own purpose, i.e. to live off his wages, does not appear anywhere in this organization of wage labor – as little money as possible for as much work as possible. But this purpose is clearly decided on by the set-up – negatively. The realm of freedom, “life” that begins outside the factory gates and the company does not interfere with, must be financed by the wages for the hours during which the company employs the worker. This fact is not very pleasant when it comes to guaranteeing one’s means of subsistence!

For the number of hours during which a wage-dependent person is allowed to, and must, scrape together the necessary money, is a matter of their profitability. Only those working hours which are filled with work in accordance with the job bring him wages when they pay off for the company. It is no coincidence, therefore, when – quite independently of the worker’s need for time and money – both are subjected to the business needs of the employer: labor time and earnings.

The working day and the daily wage

The party for whom the whole thing is to pay off is the only one entitled to decide how long “employment” pays off. And this party is interested in permanently utilizing his production equipment in a manner appropriate for the business cycle, because this reduces his costs for the factory and machinery. As long as it is standing still, this means losses. So the labor is set up and divided up accordingly so that the engines run. The principle involved is that labor power must be freely available to the firm whenever, and as long as, it needs it. The application of this principle has provided the free entrepreneurs with some reactions. Their lack of regard for the physical limits of labor power was answered by the fight for a working day whose length makes a few more working days bearable.

Since then, factory bosses must calculate with the legal establishment of a few safety provisions and a normal working day. It is true that this normal working day modifies their calculation with the people dependent on wages, but it by no means determines the organization of the working day, but rather settles when and how it is allowed to be cut short and lengthened. Overtime costs extra pay, which the firm can evidently spare, and does spare, without any difficulty in spite of all the complaints about the wages always being too high. For this spares it a lot of expensive trouble hiring new people and dismissing old people when as many working hours as possible are to be taken care of by as few people as possible.

The detrition of the workers is just as unproblematic as when shift work is introduced. The profit calculations demand the permanent use of the machinery, and therefore also the division of the staff into changing shifts, early shifts and late shifts as long as 10 to 12 hours. The normal working day does not suffer from this at all, but rather is the legal basis for it. This profitable freedom is cheaply purchased for just a few dollars.

According to the shift plan, work is relentlessly required which no longer even provides for normal restoration of labor power, and which is also usually done longer than the shift-worker plans – i.e. until he no longer can and is forced to give up this tremendous chance for earning more.

On the other hand, capitalists are not at all fussy about ordering their staff to do short-time work for less pay when this fits the working process or the business climate. Some people are forced to do shorter and more intense part-time work for part of their previous pay. Just as no attention is paid in the case above to their health being ruined or the time needed for rest, here none is paid to the necessary means of subsistence. For the company, a part-time worker is as good as full labor power; for the person involved, the wage is at best an addition to the family income which is obviously too low if only one person is working.

When the company plans production, it thus also decides on the financing the workers dispose of, and also on their whole day. In each case, this goes against them. The length of working time determines how much free time is left over. Body and mind, family and friends – this all requires time, but is not at all the measure for the free time available. When a person is not working, this is when he can and must take care of everything else involved in living. And the length and intensity of his working time make sure that his free time passes quickly. A fair amount of minutes and hours is already gone for time-consuming necessities like commuting, breaks, etc, which are part of work but are not counted as such or paid for. For when the company defines as work only the immediate productive activity without everything else involved, the worker is not entitled to do this in the sphere of his needs and pleasures. On the contrary, these are concentrated on keeping him able to work, depending on the degree of his detrition due to working – which is not so easy, as everybody knows.

But in spite of all the strain involved in the variations of the modern “8-hour day,” there is still an obvious interest in them. People dependent on wage labor even manage to see some “advantages” in shift work, which puts a complete end to normal “life” and furthers the ruin of one’s health even faster than other work. This interest is an evident result of the fact that the normal wages of a normal working day are no good for a comfortable life and a useful income.

The work week and weekly wages

Like the normal working day, the 40 hour week, including a free weekend, is a strictly arithmetical entity. Not only because anywhere between 20 and 60 hours of work are regularly and irregularly reckoned up. It is by no means sure, either, that the week will be divided into five unpopular working days and a weekend for relaxation. It is true that this separation within the week shows recognition of the fact that the daily working time is too long and tiring in the long run, and there is not enough time in the daily routine for restoring one’s will and energy to work, or for one’s family duties and pleasures, imposed on and granted to a civilized working animal. But this acknowledgment is only conditional, and is due to the public interest in his usefulness for a higher purpose: work. The use of working people must not be impeded by concerns about their usefulness.

For the worker, it may be annoying and tiring enough that free time, not to mention pleasure, is limited for most of the week, that it is all concentrated on the weekend and that as soon as one has got out of working rhythm a little and grown accustomed to the other life, Monday is back again. The very opposite is what bothers the entrepreneurs: that there are so many gaps in the use of work. So they treat these necessary days of relaxation as a reservoir of working time on call which is generously left to the workers, and make even more use of these workers, instead of employing more workers, when business is booming or in the interests of uninterrupted production. They regularly order special shifts or even set up completely continuous shifts. Then some people have a work week of 6, 7 or more working days which they are allowed to compensate by a longer weekend at larger intervals and on changing days. On the other hand, some staff members, departments or whole staffs have no normal working time or corresponding normal wages at all for a shorter or longer period of time, because their use does not pay off 40 whole hours.

Thus, the relation of labor, free time and wages is lacking in all stability, because only two rules hold permanently when it comes to wage labor: cheap and available any time! This is why free time always costs earnings, and additional money is paid for by overworking.

Wage labor evidently consists of the difficult job of doing justice to two necessities of existence which rule each other out. On the one hand, one must put in as many working hours as possible in order to earn one’s living for the week, including the gaps for the required relaxation. On the other hand, each working hour deprives life of some “quality of life” – so that the wage workers adapt their mode of living in both affairs – time and money – to the requirements of their job. For no one can help realizing, looking back at the past week and anticipating the coming week, that the way his wages are calculated – money per working hour – is such that he is paid exactly as much as will guarantee his continuing “will to work” and thriftiness.

Workers do not benefit at all either from more wages, unless the working time remains the same, or from a reduction in their working time, unless the hourly wage is increased. But these are the very means the masters of the companies use – all on the basis of the 40 hour week.

Work by the month and the monthly wage

Monthly differences of over a hundred dollars are not unusual, they depend on the use those in charge have made of the worker. For he has advanced a month’s work and is now given the result in the form of his pay slip. While he is only now free to dispose of his wages, this pay slip indicates explicitly and inexplicably what kind of success, and whose success, has been assured by this time thanks to his labor, and what he was working for.

Even before the wage recipients enjoy the freedom of spending their wages, they have satisfied by their labor not only their employer, but also the claims of the public power. And the same parties help themselves once again when it comes to paying. As soon as the wages are spent, they turn the goods of the one party into cash and fill up the tills at the gas station and everywhere else, and in the form of rent they help yield interest on housing and property ownership. There is only one thing they do not have to pay for: a pleasant life for the person who is dependent on them.

The work year and the annual wage

In the course of the year, the state and the economy officially concede to the people that they can by no means live off their normal monthly wages, and that, conversely, their labor power cannot be restored in the normal alternation of working time and leisure.

In the interests of a productive and viable population, some compensation provides for this. Although there are all kinds of paid holidays, people are entitled to a few weeks completely free of work in order to regenerate themselves for another year. This is a favor, the purpose of which – restoration of labor power – is provided at the same time in a legal form. One is obliged to relax, even to take a vacation, in one’s holidays, which testifies to the state’s interest in its subject’s usefulness, which is constantly in danger.

The company enterprise does its share to keep the costs low. The exciting question of whether the company is open during Christmas and New Year or not is decided year after year anew depending on the business climate. And the small and large companies distribute their employees’ holiday wishes over the whole year in accordance with production, and the pleasant period of doing nothing is often followed for the employees by a doubly difficult period of getting used to a new job. This achievement of our philanthropic civilization thus serves the purpose all across the board of improving the use of the working material. All the same, the fact that one is actually allowed to work less than twelve months a year is considered real luxury.

Companies also do their employees big favors with new forms of unpaid holidays. Overtime and special shifts alternating with short-time work – none of this deserves recognition in wages any more when the working time is simply calculated annually and dissolves into a 40 hour week, at least on paper. Overtime counts as normal working time just as short-time work counts as holidays. And sick wage workers can earn their money when they are healthy and working. No one pays a penny out of any fund any more except when profitable working hours are put in.

The necessary extras such as holidays and the purchases and presents made at Christmas time are not provided in the hourly wage. Holiday and Christmas pay and other annual premiums are concessions to the necessities of a wage worker’s reproduction. This is made clear by the form in which they are paid: in the form of a bonus from the company, which has already remunerated the work by the normal wages. Thus, one must acquire a claim to such extras by sufficiently long company membership, and conversely, the bosses calculate each year how much it is worth it to them to maintain “their” staff beyond the standard wage. And they also calculate whether they must afford such payments at all in view of the tense situation and the nice competition on the labor market!

Life working time and life wages

A wage worker needs a job, not only today and tomorrow but his whole life. But the companies only need workers in numbers and for lengths of time which pay off. And they need such jobs which nobody can stand his whole life. This is something wage workers must cope with. The state obliges them to look after cases of emergency when they must be able to live without being able to work. In a welfare state, employees must take precautions – for the foreseeable and ever-impending consequences of their employment: sickness, invalidity, unemployment, old age. This takes away a considerable amount of their wages.

In each phase of life, the effort to work in order to live thus ensures the very opposite: that one only lives in order to be used and used up as labor power.

A normal working life begins with being excluded from higher spheres which bode such fine careers. Therefore one must then go looking for a position as an apprentice, upon which the chance of a somewhat higher wage bracket depends, and in which discipline and modesty are learned above all. Of course, there are alternatives. One can also make a living without any skills, giving up any greater wants, if one does not aim at a soldierly future in the Armed Forces. One is luckier to have a job, even if/because it is by no means certain.

What is certain, on the other hand, is that health becomes an invaluable good for a working person sooner or later. Even if one can stand the work, progress is unstoppable and provides many a rationalization measure. The profession of a person dependent of wages is “mobility.” He must get used to new working conditions and reduced wages. (There is an alternative here as well: the manpower office.) The more working years pass, the harder it is to find a better company. One’s wages grow with the seniority bonuses, the alternative offers are scarce, and one is not getting any younger or stronger.

All this promotes one’s “devotion” to the company, without one making any demands on it. Thus, some people suddenly find themselves among the permanently unemployed older generation; some have to deal prematurely with occupational and other diseases, and are classified as less or no longer capable of working, and paid accordingly.

One must consider oneself lucky if one manages to attain the one big and irrevocable break from work there is at all – life as an old age pensioner. Even if one experiences for the last time the negative dialectics of leisure and money. Enough time for life is only provided when one’s working ability no longer satisfies the employer’s needs, and, on the other hand, one has abandoned, through long years of work and the resulting aging, most of the desires with which one entered working life full of hopes. At the same time, the principle that no one deserves anything if he doesn’t work is now applied for the last and definitive time. Although one has paid for “security in old age” all one’s life and acquired claims to a pension in 40 years or more, the state decides how much money one is entitled to when one is old, and the state regards the annoying former payers as costs. It knows how to bind the old age pension to the former wages and the number of working years when this is good for saving money. On the other hand, it points out, for the same reason, that the working “generation” is not paying much. By restricting the possibilities of earning something on the side and setting maximum levels for the pensions, the state also makes sure that the obligatory “precautions” do not lead to “excess provision.” For those who never managed to be too successful in life, it is taken for granted that their old age is not to be enjoyed either. Conversely, it is considered a remarkable achievement of the welfare state that such people are “given” anything to live off at all.


does not exist in a country like ours, thank God. This can be seen by the fact that it has been called a “market economy” for quite some time, even putting a “social” before it. Furthermore, the union representatives of the working class take great care to participate in managing it. There is no phase of life and no area of life in which a worker escapes the moving care of his union, not only in Germany. From the wage bracket to the working time, from the hourly wage to dismissal – all this has been partly managed by the union.

A class state

is even more ridiculous. This can be seen at any rate by the fact that workers can easily climb up into the highest offices. Even the conservative governments, like that of Germany, appoint a union man as Minister of Social Affairs, who then has his “smell of the stable” stink away at every opportunity. Under such conditions, working people just have to feel at home! And there are no laws, no regulations, no collective or any other wage agreements which are not discussed, recommended, approved and issued by all kinds of workers’ representatives, who do everything in his name.

Of course, there are “abuses” here as everywhere else, since no one is perfect. There are even “excesses”: men often earn more than women for the same work; some young people never even go through proper training (getting the boss coffee and baking rolls); and above all: the government and business pay much too little attention to the constructive political proposals of their colleagues in the unions concerning the economy and the labor market. But the unions are making headway, thank God, showing how responsible they are for the common good whenever they are allowed. (And when they are not allowed, they feel even more cause to show their responsibility.)

A fight for the interests of working people

is therefore the last thing a modern democracy can use. This is made especially clear by the fact that the unions only fight for one thing: social peace.