Chapter 20: Time-Wages

Outline of Marx's Argument


Two general methodological points:

First, Marx is here talking about the peculiarities of one form of a form. Wages are the form of the value of labor power; time wages are the form of that form. The peculiarities that interest him at this point concern the various ways in which this particular form of wages can be and often is manipulated by capital in its efforts to impose more work. The same will be true in his next chapter on piece-wages. The same would be true if he had analyzed other forms. The same should be true if we do what he didn't do and extend his analysis to those other forms. We might note, for example, how salaries - which are paid at a fixed rate, usually so-and-so-much per year (and thus per month) leave open the amount of actual labor time required. We might also note how this means that jobs that pay salaries generally designate the tasks to be performed and that those tasks often require far more than the standard number of hours per week, e.g., 40 hrs in the US after WWII. Thus the commonplace that salaried workers wind up spending many extra hours in their offices and also take home briefcases full of work to be done in their supposed "free time." In the next chapter we will see how the analysis of piece wages throws further light on what turns out, in this case, to be a hybrid form of the wage.

The same should still be true if we turned from his focus on the explicit wage to other forms of working class income that support the reproduction of labor power, e.g., unemployment compensation, welfare payments, grades, public health services. For example, in the case of unemployment compensation, that is generally presented to the public as a kind of welfare for the temporarily unemployed, we would note how it is structured to require the work of looking for work, of making the labor market function by forcing those who want to receive compensation to actively seek out employers and then provide evidence of having done so. In this case both the amount (low) of the compensation and the rules (how many interviews are required) can and are manipulated to impose more work. In each case the objective of the analysis should be to identify the particular ways in which those particular forms of income might be, or have been, or are being manipulated to impose more work.

Second, Marx's emphasis here, as in so much of the book, is on the way capital tries to manipulate this form of the wage to its own advantage. To the degree that he discusses workers' struggle, it is primarily about their defense reactions to such manipulations. His one example is mentioned in the summary above - the "revolt of the London building workers of 1860". But surely, we can go further than this and look at how workers wage struggles may be not merely "resistance" but quite positive demands for things they want. We saw this distinction in Marx's treatment in Chapter 10 over the battles over the working day. He sketched how workers resisted the lengthening of the working day, but then passed over to the attack, took the initiative, and fought for a reduction in the working day. Wage struggles, like the battles for reducing the working day, may be, and often have been struggles for higher consumption, more choices, and so on.

For example, it should be clear from his analysis above that workers have fought to raise wages not only to get more money, but to be able to work less! Success at forcing up the hourly wage, especially when they have been successful in fixing a normal working week, e.g., 40hrs in the post-WWII period, means less compulsion to work. As wages rise, not only is there less compulsion but the rising wage makes more and more possible during non-work hours and therefore leads to demands for a reduction in working hours. Thus the more or less steady rise in wages after 1945 led eventually to demands in the United States and Europe for reduced working weeks, either 35-36 hours spread out over five days, or the existing 40 hours packed into four days (an effective reduction of working time if you consider - as I think you must - that the time of preparing for work, going to work, returning from work etc is really all time "working" for the boss and not "free" for your own use).

Where there have been institutional obstacles - such as the reactionary recalcitrance of union bureaucrats to the formal posing of such demands - workers have often simply refused work and appropriated extra free time. This has happened in many ways including absenteeism, playing on the job, wildcat strikes, sabotage and so on. In the Appalachian coal fields of the 1960s and 1970s, for example, success in raising wages (in part through Keynesian productivity deals that resulted in massive reductions in the number of jobs) led many young miners to seek more free time through wildcat strikes. They would go to work with their hunting rifle or fishing pole in the trunk of their car in anticipation of a wildcat strike which would give most of them the day, or days, off. The possible provocations of such a strike in coal mines were multiple given the dangerous, poisonous character of the work. The point here is simply that it was the success in raising wages that made possible these other struggles.

Time wages hide exploitation

Along with the way time wages provide one set of tools for capital to exploit workers, and increase that exploitation, so too does their structure play the convenient role of hiding that exploitation. In the case of hourly wages, for example, the more workers work, the more they are paid - at least in principle. The less they work, for sure the less they will be paid. To keep track of exactly how long many workers work, capitalists developed "time clocks". There is a traditional one in Charlie Chaplin's movie Modern Times - the kind that requires each worker to pick up their personal card from one rack, stick it in the clock mechanism where the time is recorded, and then place the card in another rack. (The use of two racks makes it easier to see if anyone is late or has left early.) Such clocks are still used in some places. (An example is the the blocky, green " Acroprint 125/150 Mechanical Time Clock" to the right.) A manual time clock that punches time cards. Because workers learned to cover for each other, by punching their friend's card in if the friend was a little late, or by punching their friend out if they left early, capitalists have updated their time clocks to use "biometrics", i.e., they use modern fingerprint recognition equipment to make sure one worker can't help out another and that the corporation extracts the maximum feasible work time from each worker. The biometric time clock below is from the Qqest Software Corporation. Similar technologies included things like personalized card swipe units, portable/PDA technology (for geographically dispersed workers) and computer login recordings, e.g., in computer tech call centers the workers' logins are automatically recorded as the moment they start work - not when they leave home for work, or when they arrive at the company, or even when they walk in the door, but when they pick up their head phones and login. Associated with such modern computerized time clocks are software programs to reduce the labor costs of tracking work times and calculating wages due. Take a look at the reports generated by "TimeClock Plus" software. A biometric time clock to prevent workers from punching each other in and out.

Because workers are paid so-and-so much per hour, and because their work time is so carefully monitored, it would seem that because if they work more, they are paid more, that they are not exploited. But this apparent correlation between labor time and pay obscures the existence of surplus labor time. On the aggregate it is obvious that there is surplus labor time - it is expended producing the means of production - but at the micro level each capitalist's access to those means of production is controlled by the amount of profit they earn. The more labor they can get their workers to do, ceteris paribus, the more profit they make, the more investment they can undertake by buying the products of the aggregate surplus labor. Not surprisingly, when Marx talks about overtime wages, one of the things he emphasizes is that even though workers are paid extra for working longer, that extra pay is only a small portion of the value their labor adds to what they are producing and to the profits the capitalists realize upon the sale of those products.

Overtime and Competition

Marx's discussion of "overtime" - when workers work more than the current normal working day - was shaped by the widespread use of such extra work in a period in which capitalists were still fighting the Factory Acts discussed in Chapter 10 and sought various ways to subvert any limits on the time over which they could exploit workers. You might want to re-read Marx's comments in Section 2 of that chapter on capitalists' "nibbling and cribbling" at the working day: stealing a few minutes here, a few minutes there. That day-to-day, hour-to-hour struggle between managers and workers never disappeared, even with the Factory Acts or more recent labor legislation. Not only has such legislation often left uninforced, but it has often had only partial coverage, leaving many workers unprotected. Marx gives several examples of industries, e.g., paper-staining and bleaching-works, in which capitalist manipulation results in workers being forced to work overtime; others are easy to find today. ink drawing by folk
singer and writer Woody Guthrie of a worker busting a clock with his fist

As Juliet Schorr documented in her book The Overworked American, the assault on workers in the United States by the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s resulted in such reductions in hourly wages (and other benefits) and such increases in unemployment that more and more workers were forced to work overtime in order to try to maintain their real income and standards of living. This was not a change in this industry or that industry, but a change in the overall condition of workers at the national level. By mid-century capital had learned from John Maynard Keynes and his followers how government macro economic policies could be brought to bear against the class as a whole and the methods previously used by individual capitalists could be generalized.

Two associated effects were the way more spouses were forced to enter the labor market to seek a second wage in order to maintain the family wage and the way more workers were forced to seek second jobs for the same purpose. In both cases the amount of work being extracted from the working class increased as people worked longer hours - whether in old jobs, new jobs or extra jobs. Official statistics on "overtime" naturally fail to take such phenomena into account.

Currently workers in Western Europe are under also considerable pressure to accept both a lengthening of the "normal" working week - which many had suceeded in reducing to 35 hours in the last quarter century - and overtime. The weapon being used by European business and government to achieve this increase in exploitation is the "competition" of Eastern Europe - especially those just recently admitted to the European Union.

In one of the cases Marx cites in this chapter (p. 690), that of the baking industry, he uses a screed from one set of bakers against another set to illustrate how desperate foreign workers and young workers who "are obliged to accept almost any wages they can obtain" were being forced to work extra-long hours giving some baking enterprises a competitive advantage over others. Today in Europe the same kind of thing is engineered as poor workers from the collapsed communist East have been pitted against the higher waged, shorter working time, better organized workers in Western Europe. Added to this pressure is the threat by modern multinational corporations to close down operations in the higher-waged West and move to the lower-waged, longer working time, less organized East. Their excuse, as in Marx's time, is "competition". In a recent New York Times' article we find the following testimony by the representative of one of those multinational corporations:

The article contains many more examples. It also makes clear that hovering behind the current assault on working hours, is a follow-up assault on vacation time. Just as European workers have been more successful than American workers in reducing the length of the working week, so too have they been more successful in gaining annual days of vacation. Whereas the average annual vacation in the U.S. is only 12 days, it has been forced up to 18 days in Japan, 25 days in France and 30 in Germany. What we can see here is the contingent relationship between "overtime" and "the normal working day". Obviously, if the "normal working day" (or week, or year) can be redefined legally in a way that lengthens it then some of what had hitherto been "overtime" and paid a bit more, would become "normal" time and paid at regular rates. Here we are at the beginning of the 21st Century and the relevance of Marx's analysis of work time in the mid-19th Century is strikingly, and appallingly, relevant.

What this use of desperate immigrant labor and of the threat of corporate displacement to weaker pools of labor demonstrate is the real class logic behind "competition." The term is used rhetorically, and ideologically, to evoke competition between corporations or between nations, but what we see here is that the capitalist organization of "competition" is really the pitting of workers against workers with the objective of undermining the power of the stronger through the employment of the weaker. The corollary to this strategy is that of fanning racial and ethnic prejudices and the vicious politics that support them. Thus in Germany fear of Polish or Turkish workers feed Nazis hate groups who, crying "Defense of the Fatherland!!", attack those workers and burn their apartment buildings down. Thus similar hate groups in France, egged on not only by Jean Le Pen's minority National Front Party but by official state policies encouraging such competition mount similar campaigns. Thus American politicians from George H.W. Bush to David Duke play the racial card against Black and Latin workers in the United States. In each case the politics works to divert workers from the defense of the rights they have gained through past struggles and capitalists have an easier time driving down wages, imposing overtime and redefining "normal work time" upward. After being defeated as a capitalist strategy for almost forty years in the West, absolute surplus value is back with a vengence.

Concepts for Review

    time wages
    forms of wages
    transformation of form
    nominal wages
    real wages
    laws of wages
    time clocks

Questions for Review

1. Why does Marx think "It would be useless to repeat here, with regard to the phenomenal form, what has been already worked out in the substantial form."?

2. What happens to the real wage if the intensity of labor rises while time wage rates remain constant?

3. How have the capitalists manipulated time wages in order to force workers to work more? How was this done in the colonies when workers could evade wage labor by retreating to the land? Do any elements of this persist today?

4. How do time wage rates such as $10.00/hr. hide exploitation?

5. Under what conditions would workers demand overtime or longer working hours?

6. How can overtime wages be both nominally higher per hour and actually lower in real terms?

7. During periods in which workers are struggling to reduce the length of work time, what else must they demand to avoid a fall in real income?

8. How are wages an expression of working class power? Of its weakness?