Engels on wages and unions

Tom Condit tomcondit at igc.apc.org
Sun Oct 15 15:31:13 MDT 1995

It would appear from the article below that Uncle Fred wouldn't
agree with the MIMistas on the Detroit newspaper strike. "The
Wages System" was published in THE LABOUR STANDARD (London)
in May 1881. It was second in a series of six articles.

(Note to Ken & Jonathan: This is the complete text, courtesy of
_The People_. Feel free to put it in your achives, web pages, or


In a previous article we examined the time-honored motto, "A fair
day's wages for a fair day's work," and came to the conclusion
that the fairest day's wages under present social conditions is
necessarily tantamount to the very unfairest division of the
workman's produce, the greater portion of that produce going into
the capitalist's pocket, and the workman having to put up with
just as much as will enable him to keep himself in working order
and to propagate his race.

This is a law of political economy, or, in other words, a law of
the present economical organization of society, which is more
powerful than all the Common and Statute Law of England put
together, the Court of Chancery included. While society is
divided into two opposing classes--on the one hand, the
capitalists, monopolizers of the whole of the means of
production, land, raw materials, machinery; on the other hand,
laborers, working people deprived of all property in the means of
production, owners of nothing but their own working power; while
this social organization exists the law of wages will remain all-
powerful, and will every day afresh rivet the chains by which the
workingman is made the slave of his own produce--monopolized by
the capitalist.

The trades unions of this country have now for nearly 60 years
fought against this law--with what result? Have they succeeded in
freeing the working class from the bondage in which capital--the
produce of its own hands--holds it? Have they enabled a single
section of the working class to rise above the situation of wages
slaves, to become owners of their own means of production, of the
raw materials, tools, machinery required in their trade, and thus
to become the owners of the produce of their own labor? It is
well known that not only they have not done so, but that they
never tried.

Far be it from us to say that trades unions are of no use because
they have not done that. On the contrary, trades unions in
England, as well as in every other manufacturing country, are a
necessity for the working classes in their struggle against
capital. The average rate of wages is equal to the sum of
necessaries sufficient to keep up the race of workmen in a
certain country according to the standard of life habitual in
that country. That standard of life may be very different for
different classes of workmen. The great merit of trades unions,
in their struggle to keep up the rate of wages and to reduce
working hours, is that they tend to keep up and to raise the
standard of life. There are many trades in the East End of London
whose labor is not more skilled and quite as hard as that of
bricklayers and bricklayers' laborers, yet they hardly earn half
the wages of these. Why? Simply because a powerful organization
enables the one set to maintain a comparatively high standard of
life as the rule by which their wages are measured; while the
other set, disorganized and powerless, have to submit not only to
unavoidable but also to arbitrary encroachments of their
employers: their standard of life is gradually reduced, they
learn how to live on less and less wages, and their wages
naturally fall to that level which they themselves have learnt to
accept as sufficient.

The law of wages, then, is not one which draws a hard and fast
line. It is not inexorable within certain limits. There is at
every time (great depression excepted) for every trade a certain
latitude within which the rate of wages may be modified by the
results of the struggle between the two contending parties. Wages
in every case are fixed by a bargain, and in a bargain he who
resists longest and best has the greatest chance of getting more
than his due. If the isolated workman tries to drive his bargain
with the capitalist he is easily beaten and has to surrender at
discretion; but if a whole trade of workmen form a powerful
organization, collect among themselves a fund to enable them to
defy their employers if need be, and thus become enabled to treat
with these employers as a power, then, and then only, have they a
chance to get even that pittance which, according to the
economical constitution of present society, may be called a fair
day's wages for a fair day's work.

The law of wages is not upset by the struggles of trades unions.
On the contrary, it is enforced by them. Without the means of
resistance of the trades unions the laborer does not receive even
what is his due according to the rules of the wages system. It is
only with the fear of the trade union before his eyes that the
capitalist can be made to part with the full market value of his
laborer's working power. Do you want a proof? Look at the wages
paid to the members of the large trades unions, and at the wages
paid to the numberless small trades in that pool of stagnant
misery, the East End of London.

Thus the trades unions do not attack the wages system. But it is
not the highness or lowness of wages which constitutes the
economical degradation of the working class: this degradation is
comprised in the fact that, instead of receiving for its labor
the full produce of this labor, the working class has to be
satisfied with a portion of its own produce called wages. The
capitalist pockets the whole produce (paying the laborer out of
it) because he is the owner of the means of labor. And,
therefore, there is no real redemption for the working class
until it becomes owner of all the means of work--land, raw
material, machinery, etc.--and thereby also the owner of THE

** End of text from cdp:thepeople.news **
Tom Condit
<tomcondit at igc.apc.org>
1801-A Cedar Street
Berkeley, California 94703

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