Chapter 21: Piece Wages

Outline of Marx's Argument:


"Piece-work", to the experienced worker whether in home, factory or field always carries the flavor of exploitation. The subtlety that Marx insists upon - how the form of payment leads workers to drive themselves to high intensity and long hours - is not always immediately apparent to new and naive workers. To them piece-work may seem to provide an opportunity for great achievement: the more you work, the more you get paid. They don't realize at first that the piece rates have been set so that even with their greatest efforts they will earn little in relation to what they produce. They don't realize, because they haven't had the experience, that if they outperform past standards, the piece-rates will be adjusted downward so that their income rises but little, even with increased effort.

In the passage below, from his story "The Apostate", Jack London describes some of this psychological dynamic as well as the physical costs workers may bear under such conditions of exploitation.

After he recovered, he got work in a glass factory. The pay was better, and the work demanded skill. It was piece-work, and the more skilful he was, the bigger wages he earned. Here was incentive. And under this incentive he developed into a remarkable worker.

It was simple work, the tying of glass stoppers into small bottles. At his waist he carried a bundle of twine. He held the bottles between his knees so that he might work with both hands. Thus, in a sitting position and bending over his own knees, his narrow shoulders grew humped and his chest was contracted for ten hours each day. This was not good for the lungs, but he tied three hundred dozen bottles a day.

The superindendent was very proud of him, and brought visitors to look at him. In ten hours three hundred dozen bottles passed through his hands. This meant that he had attained machine-like perfection. All waste movements were eliminated. Every motion of his thin arms, every movement of a muscle in the thin fingers, was swift and accurate. He worked at high tension, and the result was that he grew nervous. At night his muscles twitched in his sleep, and in the daytime he could not relax and rest. He remained keyed up and his muscles continued to twitch. Also he grew sallow and his lint-cough grew worse. Then pneumonia laid hold of the feeble lungs within the contracted chest, and he lost his job in the glass-works.

(Jack London, "The Apostate', in Jack London, Novels & Stories, New York: The Library of America, 1982.

One of the great attractions of piece work and piece wages to capitalists is that with piece rates set low enough, very little supervision is required. In order to earn a living wage workers must work hard, fast and well to produce enough pieces - quite irrespective of whether anyone is looking over their shoulder. The costs of supervision are essentially passed from the capitalist to the workers as they internalize the discipline of piece work and impose work on themselves. This self-imposition of work, of course, goes against workers' instinctive ressentment and resistance to suffering the indignities of alienating work - doing what some one else says to do, they way they say to do it, for their profit and enrichment, and so on. The piece workers, therefore, pay the psychological costs not only of alienation but of the hour-to-hour experience of imposing that alienation on themselves.

In reaction to the unpleasantnesses of piece-work exploitation, workers often band together in self-defense. On the one hand, they often fight for hourly wages instead of piece wages to improve their situation. But if that doesn't seem feasible and they must remain on the terrain of piece work then their primary objective is to avoid being drawn into the cruel dynamic of more work - lower rates - more work - lower rates, etc. One way they avoid this is to cooperate to make sure that they not be pitted against each other; that everyone works at about the same speed and no-one outperforms the others. They know that if this happens the fastest worker's time will be used to set the pace for everyone else, and that the rates will be lowered so even the fastest worker will make little more than before. The following example, taken from another of London's tales "South of the Slot" about a conservative sociologist who got a factory job in order to study "labor", describes the kind of conflict that would sometimes emerge between the cooperating workers and an individual who either didn't understand the dangers, or refused to go along with the collective strategy. In this case the violence of the piece-rate system was resisted by a cooperation which was willing to use violence to preserve itself. This situation was undoubtedly one London knew well, since he had worked in just such a cannery himself.


One of his first experiences was in the great Wilmax Cannery, where he was put on piece-work making small packing cases. A box factory supplied the parts, and all Freddie Drummond had to do was to fit the parts into a form and drive in the wire nails with a light hammer.

It was not skilled labor, but it was piece work. The ordinary laborers in the cannery got a dollar and a half a day. Freddie Drummond found the other men on the same job with him jogging along and earning a dollar and seventy-five cents a day. By the third day he was able to earn the same. But he was ambitious. He did not care to jog along and being unusually able and fit, on the fourth day earned two dollars. The next day, having keyed himself up to an exhausting tension, he earned two dollars and a half. His fellow workers favored him with scowls and black looks, and made remarks, slangily witty and which he did not understand, about sucking up to the boss and pace-making and holding her down when the rains set in. He was astonished at their malingering on piece-work, generalized about the inherent laziness of the unskilled laborer, and proceeded next day to hammer out three dollars' worth of boxes.

And that night coming out of the cannery, he was interviewed by his fellow workmen, who were very angry and incoherently slangy. He failed to comprehend the motive behind their action. The action itself was strenuous. When he refused to ease down his pace and bleated about freedom of contract, independent Americanism, and the dignity of toil, they proceeded to spoil his pace-making ability. It was a fierce battle, for Drummond was a large man and an athlete, but the crowd finally jumped on his ribs, walked on his face, and stamped on his fingers, so that it was only after lying in bed for a week that he was able to get up and look for another job.

(Jack London, "South of the Slot," in Jack London, Novels & Stories, New York: Library of America, 1982.)


Almost a hundred years later, this same theme was the substance of Patti Smith's 1974 autobiographical blast that shook the world of rock and role. The following are first part of the lyrics to her song Piss Factory.

Piss Factory

Sixteen and time to pay off
I got this job in a piss factory inspecting pipe
Forty hours thirty-six dollars a week
But it's a paycheck, Jack.
It's so hot in here, hot like Sahara
You could faint in the heat
But these bitches are just too lame to understand
Too goddamned grateful to get this job
To know they're getting screwed up the ass
All these women they got no teeth or gum or cranium
And the way they suck hot sausage
But me well I wasn't sayin' too much neither
I was moral school girl hard-working asshole
I figured I was speedo motorcycle
I had to earn my dough, had to earn my dough

But no you gotta, you gotta [relate, babe,]
You gotta find the rhythm within
Floor boss slides up to me and he says
"Hey sister, you just movin' too fast,
You screwin' up the quota,
You doin' your piece work too fast,
Now you get off your mustang sally
You ain't goin' nowhere, you ain't goin' nowhere."
I lay back. I get my nerve up. I take a swig of Romilar
And walk up to hot shit Dot Hook and I say
"Hey, hey sister it don't matter whether I do labor fast or slow,
There's always more labor after."
She's real Catholic, see. She fingers her cross and she says
"There's one reason. There's one reason.
You do it my way or I push your face in.
We knee you in the john if you don't get off your get off your mustang Sally,
If you don't shake it up baby."
Shake it up, baby. Twist & shout"
ALL the lyrics

Patti Smith, Piss Factory, 1974
Available on Arista Records, Land (1975-2002), 2002.

The understanding of the danger to workers of piece work had become so obvious, and so exposed, that by 1949 workers in the United States were able to pressure Congress into adding an amendment to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act governming wages and hours that specified that piece workers receive wages at least as high as the created "minimum wage." Unfortunately, a great many workers were not covered by that legislation and many are still not covered even today.

Piece Wages Hide Exploitation

Marx's comments about how piece wages make it seem as if workers are paid for their labor, not their labor power parallel those in the last chapter about time wages. If you work a little more and are paid a little more, there would seem to be a correlation between your work and your pay, in such a manner that you seem to be paid for your work, not your labor power. It is only by examining the actual dynamic of piece work - how capitalists manipulate the piece rates to keep the workers wages at the level of the value of the labor power - that we see how appearances can be deceiving, or, how what may be true in the short run (more work = more wages) is undermined in the long run (more work = same wages, same value of labor power).

To get a detailed analysis of the kind of dynamic Marx described, you would do well to read the book A Worker in a Worker's State by Miklos Haraszti. It's a short book and well worth the effort. Haraszti worked in the "Red Star Tractor Factory" in Communist Hungary where piece work was omnipresent and his book describes the dynamics of the struggles between the workers and their managers in great detail. Indeed, the book reads like an extended amplification of Marx's chapter on piece wages. Haraszti was caught smuggling the manuscript out of Hungary, arrested and given a suspended sentence for his efforts. The book was eventually published in the United States and is currently available from Pelican Books.

Piece Wages and The Amount of Work

Marx draws on the reports of English factory inspectors to conclude that piece rates generally make workers work faster, more intensely, especially, when piece rates are lowered. But more generally he sees piece wages as "the form of wage most appropriate to the capitalist mode of production" in large part because they facilitate speed-up. There are other methods for forcing workers to work faster, of course, such as tying the workers' speed to that of machines - the kind of thing he discussed in chapter 15 on machinery and modern industry. But in the absense of such methods imposing piece wages and keeping wages low forces speed-up. The same can, and has been, observed in the United States today.

For example, in the vinyards of California many workers are paid piece wages while others are paid hourly wages (an example of Marx's citation of piece and hourly wages existing side-by-side). A study by a professor of the University of California gathered evidence that confirmed the perpetuation of the tendency observed by the factory inspectors in England and suggested by Marx's theory: pruners in the vinyards paid by the piece, work faster than those paid by the hour. The former took on the average about 19 hours to prune an acre of vinyard; the latter about 26 hours. The piece workers do earn a little more - $6.84 vs $6.20 per hour - but not much, about 10% more.

Growers in California, however, have noticed a draw-back to piece wages (that they and their economists call "incentive pay programs"), namely that workers paid piece wages may just walk off the job when they meet their income goals. In such cases any gain in work due to increased intensity might be offset by a reduction in total labor time - a source of considerable annoyance to the employers.

Responding to this annoyance with typical concern for the capitalist's worries about such an "income effect", another researcher from the University of California interviewed field workers and concluded that wages were so low that few workers could afford to leave early. In general, it seemed, very low and uncertain wages were more likely to result in workers leaving the job early due to simple disgust. Therefore, the researcher concluded the growers could safely continue their "incentive" piece-wages without being overly concerned with absenteeism.

Piece Wages and Quality Control

That piece wages reduce the need for direct supervision doesn't mean that workers are left entirely on their own. With standards set for the number of pieces produced (and hence the time and intensity of work), the capitalist has to make sure that the workers don't create the illusion of having met that standard by working fast but producing shoddy products. Hence the need for "quality control". In any piece work situation, there must be quality control inspectors who examine the quality of the pieces produced to make sure that the quality as well as the amount and intensity of work time are up to snuff. If the number of pieces being produced is large, then it is commonplace for only a random sample to be checked for quality. If the number is small, all can be checked. For the kind of field workers whose work behavior was being examined in the studies of California agriculture mentioned above, the number of vines pruned, or fruit picked, etc. was certainly large so the examination of quality was likely only a sampling. Under such circumstances capitalists try to organize the work so it is obvious which worker produced which piece - a step necessary to be able to identify those responsible for not meeting quality standards.

Shortly after coming to Texas in 1976 I was asked to come aid Los Obreros Unidos - a union of workers employed by Del Monte Corp. - in their negotiations. I traveled to the factory-town where those workers lived and worked and was able to inspect the organization of the work. Among those tasks that I observed was the forking (literally) of cooked spinach into cans by individual workers (mostly women) lined up on each side of a conveyor belt. The belt carried the spinach to the various stations and a can dispensor hung above each station. The cans being dispensed were marked (by hand if I rememer right) so that the quality control person could immediately identify - and chastize - the worker responsible for over-filling, or under-filling, a given can.

Another example, this time from mining: for probably most of the history of capitalism many coal miners were paid by the amount they dug from the earth. They would dig coal and deliver it to be measured, either by the cart or by the ton. At delivery the coal would be inspected to make sure that the miners had not carelessly (or carefully) included rock in with the coal. This was also the point at which the kind of "fraud" Marx alludes to might occur, namely that the scales measuring the amount of coal might be rigged to register less than the actual tonnage, thus resulting in lower wages for the miner and higher profits for the boss. In his novel King Coal Upton Sinclair evoked the dangers of challenging such fraud:

    "Under the state law, the miner had a right to demand a check-weighman to protect his interest at the scales, paying this check-weighman's wages out of his own earnings. Whenever there was any public criticism about conditions in the coal-mines, this law would be triumphantly cited by the operators; and one had to have actual experience in order to realize what a bitter mockery this was to the miner.

    "In the dining room . . . someone broached the subject of check-weighmen to him, and the whole table heard his scornful laugh. Let any man ask for a check-weighman!

    "You mean they would fire him?" Asked Hal.

    "Maybe!" was the answer. "Maybe they make him fire himself."

    "How do you mean?"

    "They make his life one damn misery til he go."

    "So it was with check-weighman--as with scrip, and with company stores, and with all the provisions of the law to protect the miner against accidents. You might demand your legal rights, but if you did, it was a matter of the boss's temper. He might make your life one damn misery till you went of your own accord. Or you might get a string of curses and an order, "Down the canyon!"--and likely as not the toe of a boot in your trouser-seat, or the muzzle of a revolver under your nose."

    Upton Sinclair, King Coal, 1917.

If we switch our attention from the kinds of manufacturing factories that concerned Marx to more contemporary forms of white-collar labor we often find the same kind of dynamics. For example, there are any number of sales workers who work "on commission"; that is to say their wage depends on the number of items they sell. This is generally true of automobile and truck salespersons. While they may receive a base salary, it is often so low that in order to meet the expectations of their employers and to earn enough total income they must work long and hard at talking people into buying as many units as possible.

Another white-collar job which is structured by the dynamics of piece work is that of university professors. While most professors formally receive pay in the form of a salary, in truth the size of that salary is largely determined by piece work. Although universities make much to the public of the importance of teaching, large research universities - that dominate the field and set the standards by which others are judged - overwhelmingly base professoral pay not on teaching but on research and publishing. The old saw "publish or perish" has never ceased to be appropriate.

Now it is characteristic of the working conditions of academic labor that when it comes to research the projects of individual professors or research groups are rarely set by university administrators but are left up to the individuals involved. There is little or no direct supervision. Instead, professors are supposed to understand their fields well enough to choose appropriate projects and skilled enough to craft both research and articles reporting on that research without direction. The more research they perform, the more articles they publish, the more likely their promotion (usually with higher pay) and the more likely they are to receive what is now commonly known as "merit" pay increases. They are, in short, paid according to the number of "pieces" they produce. Moreover, like other piece workers they are not entirely on their own. They too are subject to quality control. That quality control usually takes the form of "peer review" wherein other professors evaluate their research projects or articles and decide whether they should receive grants in the one case or publication in the other. This situation, again in a manner similar to other piece-work situations, is highly conducive to intense competition. Research funds and space in prestigeous journals are always limited and professors compete with each other for both - as well, of course, for tenure and promotion.

Piecework and Piece "wages" in Unwaged Work

While Marx's analysis is focused on formally waged work, it is not hard to see how in capitalism its logic extends beyond that realm into various spheres of unwaged work. Not only is much unwaged work organized by the task, rather than by the hour, but much defacto payment for that work is also organized by the piece. As a result many of the characteristics of piece work peculiar to capitalist industry are also to be found in various parts of the larger social factory.

Piece Work in Schools

Having just mentioned the piece-work character of the work of professors in universities, it is not hard to see how those professors, and the university administrators for whom they work, often imposed the same kind of logic on the students they are training for future waged work. While in elementary and high school, students are kept at work for a considerable set number of hours, and carefully supervised, at the university level this is much less the case. Although there are a few professors who behave like school teachers and take attendence, for the most part students can come or not come to class lectures as they like. They are expected to impose the discipline of coming to class on themselves - and most do. While in elementary and high school, students are assigned some homework, and their parents are admonished to supervise them to make sure they do it, at the university level the vast majority of students' work is of this kind: unsupervised study whose accomplishment is totally dependent on the student's self-discipline.

Although by most accounts the objective of students' study is "learning" - acquiring familiarity with some area of knowledge - in practice most schoolwork consists in the accomplishment of specific tasks, such as writing papers or preparing for tests. Given the large number of courses most students are expected to take (often required to take to qualify for full-time student status or for scholarships) and the associated large number of tasks they are set by their professors, they rarely have either time or energy left over for any autonomous process of study or "learning". Indeed, students are notorious among professors for doing only what is required to prepare for a test or to write a paper.

This is hardly surprising, of course, given that they are not emgaged in self-directed study but are generally doing what is called for by specific degree plans, accomplishing a pre-established set of tasks that will lead to some kind of certification - in short suffering the imposition of externally imposed alienated labor of the sort Marx analyzed in the 1844 Manuscripts and I discssed in my commentary on Chapter 7. Nor should it be surprising that a great many students seek to minimize the amount of time and energy required to meet those requirements. They want to know which pieces of knowledge they will have to know for tests and don't want to waste their time on other, useless, topics. The first question most students ask about required papers is "How long does it have to be? How many pages? how many footnotes? How many sources?" So commonplace is such minimization of effort, that nowadays in the age of computers some professors go to the extent of specifying such things as font size, margins or work count to force students to do the amount of work desired (by the professor).

Associated with such structuring of school work by the piece are piece-rate-like payment systems. The most universal of these is the grading system in which students are "paid" by the piece, a grade for each task accomplished, each quiz, each test, each paper, each research report, etc. Grades, of course, are not money payments, like wages, but the promise that school administrators, professors and future employers attach to grades - that the better grades you get, the better jobs and higher wages you will eventually obtain - makes the "I.O.U.'s" on future income. And like piece wages, grades are handed out according to the number of pieces accomplished and according to the "quality" of that accomplishment. The professors, of course, play the role of quality control inspectors; they do the grading, they decide which piece is worth an "A", which is only worth a "B" and so on.

From this we can see that whereas piece wages in industry produces an immediate hierarchy of better and worse paid workers, piece work in schools produces an immediate grade hierarchy that, it is promised, will eventually be translated into a later income hierarchy. As with all such hierarchies, this kind of grading system encourages competition among workers as many students strive to get higher grades than others - both for the immediate satisfaction of demonstrating their superiority and in the hope that later on they may get better jobs. Thus the common presense of Marx's third form of alienation in schools: the alienation of worker from worker, of student from student and the associated tendencies toward mutual hostility and loneliness in the crowd.

Hence too the common phenomenon of students banning together in various ways to overcome this alienation. One form of such banning together are simple study groups or cheating networks whereby students help each other out in pre-test study or in the tests themselves in order to minimize the amount of alienated work and to maximize their grades. Another associated form is that of fraternities, sororities and other kinds of clubs and associations wherein students collaborate to reduce their schoolwork and increase the time and fun they have outside their academic requirements. What these two forms of banning together have in common is that they tend to accept the conditions of work imposed on them and simply try to cope, either by being more efficient in their studies or by outsmarting their bosses.

Still another form - that can escape the trap of "just coping" - is that of student movements, wherein students act in their collective self-defense at a much broader level. Student movements have challenged student working conditions. They have demanded the elimination or reduction of tasks (e.g., the elimination of redundant comprehensive exams, easier grading), and they have demanded changes in curriculum and the possibility of self-structured programs in order to make their work correspond to their own intellectual interests instead of someone else's notion of what they should be doing. All these demands were common in the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s but by no means completely disappeared thereafter.

Piece Work in the Home

Beyond school and school work, we can find similiar structures of work and resistance to those structures in the larger community, especially in the home. While in Marx's time working class men/husbands, women/wives and children were all finding themselves being herded into factories and mines so that the sphere of domestic life was being eaten away by formally waged work, this changed in the 20th Century. Continued success at reducing the length of the working day of the sort he documented in Section 5 of Chapter 10 came to be complemented, thanks to workers struggles, by new laws banning child labor and expanding the time and energy available for "family" life. The result was the emergence of the "nuclear family" of one spouse being a wage earner (usually the husband), one spouse being a housekeeper (usually the wife) and children going to school and doing school-assigned "homework" or chores at home instead of waged labor in factories. In short, an expanding sphere of "housework" - mainly, but not always uniquely, undertaken by wives and children.

Rarely recognized, but important for our understanding, is how capitalits played an important role in structuring this sphere of housework. Just as they intervened directly and systematically to control the shape of schooling and higher education, so too did they intervene to control the shape of housework: who did it, how it was structured, what technologies were used, what standards would apply, and so on. Often the very same capitalist institutions were involved in shaping both education and housework. One example was the General Education Board - funded by John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil infamy and formed as a vehicle for guiding the transformation of agrarian workers into industrial workers and women into housewives. Just as the Board lobbied throughout the South for expansion of public education so too did it set up Girls Canning Clubs to teach future mothers more modern, efficient methods of housework.

Any careful consideration of housework quickly reveals the piece work character of its organization. No one directly supervises housewives but governments and private industry set standards that housewives are expected to meet - and husbands and welfare agents and often neighbors and co-workers and bosses are the quality control inspectors who check to see that the standards are met.

Let's begin with governments - generally responding to pressure from business - that formulate things like pro-natalist policies to encourage women to bear more children to expand the available labor force (or conversely, in other times and places, implement family planning programs to limit procreation). Pro-natalist programs are sometimes accompanied by piece wage "family allocation" payments to women according to the number of children they produce - a bump in pay for each new child. In China, on the other hand, those who violate its 1979 One Child Policy by having other children face fines and other legal sanctions. Governments also structure programs such as unemployment insurance to make sure that beneficiaires do the work of looking for work, or welfare programs in which social workers monitor the housework of welfare recipients checking up on such things as the degree of cleanliness, whether children's health is properly cared for, whether single mothers are engaged in illegal relationships with men, and so on.

Such intrusiveness can also be found from time to time in efforts by the employers of waged workers to shape their family life. Early on the English industrialist and so-called "utopian socialist" Robert Owen structured workers' homes and community to shape both work and non-work life. In colonial times, of course, both public and private agents of empire sought to reshape and control whole societies to turn them into maleable and profitable labor. On a smaller, but still substantial scale, multinational corporations engaged in foreign investment such as United Fruit in Central America promulgated public health measures to reduce employee sickness and company costs. So did the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission in the United States in its anti-hookworm and anti-malaria campaigns. Henry Ford, of Ford Motor infamy, tried to monitor his employees' homelife in the 1920s - and met with so much resistance that he had to drop the effort. Today, it is common for some corporations to try to structure the off-work lives of their employees in various ways such as providing gyms and organizing sports teams and picnics etc. The electronic giant Motorola calls its employees "Motorolans" and devises all sorts of mechanisms to shape their employees' "private" life.

Beyond such direct interventions, there are a wide variety of more or less subtle ways capitalists set standards for housework. Corporate advertising, for example, constantly bombards housewives (indeed all the denizens of the "home") with images and detailed and explicit specifications of what housework should consist of and what standards should be met. As corporations have developed more and more "products" that can be used in household work, they naturally have sought to convince everyone of their necessity in order to maximize their sales and profits. To take just one example, the development of a wide variety of household cleaning agents - for clothes, floors, dishes, furniture, windows, kitchen surfaces, toilets, tubs, and so on - have been peddled by advertisers trying to convince people that households have to be spotless, pandering to fears of illness they have lately pushed antibiotic ladden soaps and cleansers of all sorts.

One advertisement that became almost proto-typical of the breed was for a laundry detergent called Wisk that would, it was claimed, clean so well as to "Beat ring-around-the-collar", i.e., the "oil, dirt and grime that gathers around the neck" and rubs off on the inside of white business shirts. The ad was dreamed up by Madison Avenue ad-man James Jordan and offered a solution for frustrated housewives. This standard - the absense of "ring around the collar" was one that whoever washed work clothes should meet - or risk condemnation from bosses, fellow employers, friends and neighbors who had all been exposed to, and convinced by the same advertizing. In effect, everyday people were quite being drafted by the corporation as quality control managers for this particular kind of household piecework! Wisk dirt ad.

(Today Wisk has changed it's slogan from "Wisk beats ring around the collar" to "America needs dirt" and its advertising campaign (see its web page) encourages children to play hard and get dirty; there is always Wisk to get them clean again and in an age of growing child obesity and too much television watching hard physical exercise out there in the dirt is good for them - and good for Wisk profits too.)

The pervasiveness of this kind of thinking is manifest in web-based, "creative homemaking", "cleaning forums" where you can find such testimony of image-preoccupied clothes washers as the following:

"I have white blouses and slacks 14 years old that I work around the house and in the garden I would hold up to anyone on bright white. I use any regular laundry soap-liquid-even cheap & 2 cups of borabeem. I wash whites in the same water 2x's and if I can I soak in the soap & borateem over night then resume washing proceder with 2 tablespoons of borateem in my downy ball which I have added HOT water and some vinegar to and shake it up good. Add this ball to the start of the wash. You will have beautiful bright whites and your other colors will perk up.

Another example is the peddling of dishwasher detergents like "Cascade" that would prevent "embarassing" spots on classware. In the ads, dinner guests have been shown casting critical eyes on the crystal, raising eyebrows over water spots, or smiling approvingly at perfect, spotless, gleaming glass. The message is clear: meet the standard - artificially set by the capitalist corporation to get you buy its product - or suffer the contempt of your friends. Picture of a box of Cascade dishwasher detergent.

Most of this advertising is done, of course, on television or in magazine adds against backdrops of beautifully clean, spotless homes of the sort portrayed in magazines like Home Beautiful and in virtually every soap opera and sit-com focused on upper and middle class life. The result are both explicit and implicit messages of acceptable standards by which anyone and everyone can judge the work of a given housewife, or househusband.

Those who have studied the evolution of the work of household cleaning, for example, have noted how, over time, such standards have risen. When clothes washing was by hand, and only occasional because of its difficulty no one expected - nor judged others ill - for appearing in less than sparkling attire. But as capitalist businesses have invented product after product and used methods such as the above to sell them, effectively raising the standards of "cleanliness" (which is, after all, we are told "next to godliness"), the amount of work required to meet such rising standards has also steadily risen. Today people have complex and effective washing machines that dramatically reduce the wear and tear on hands and arms of washing clothes, but given the heightened standards of what is "clean", they wind up spending as much or more time running washes, drying, ironing and folding as they used to with more primitive technology. The amount of this kind of piece work has been increased rather than decreased despite the introduction of more effective "labor-saving" technology.

Such analysis can be extended to any number of tasks that are undertaken by the complex labor of housework: the clothing, cleaning, and feeding of children and spouses, the nursing of the sick and the psychological support given to the worn out and beaten down, and even the provision of sensual and sexual services to spouses. While some such tasks are inherent in any relationship, the number, frequency and character have all be quite consciously shaped by capitalist social planners, advertizers and policy makers with the aim of making sure that they contribute not just to the happiness or well-being of family members but to the reproduction of their lives as labor power.

Piece Work in the Countryside

A final example of the extended application of Marx's analysis of piece work is that of more or less independent farmers and peasants who produce at least in part for the market. Although economists and capitalist ideologs like to paint such peoples' work as that of small businesses - producing commodities to be sold on the market with the hope of a profit - in reality the vast bulk of such producers earn barely enough to maintain themselves on their land and in their communities. Indeed, the history of both primitive and ongoing accumulation, of the ever greater concentration of agricultural land in the hands of corporate agribusiness shows quite clearly that most small farmers and peasants in the United States and Europe have not made profits, but have done so poorly as to be driven off their lands. (Listen to the song "Rain on the Scarecrow" in my notes on chapter 27.)

For such small farmers and peasants the price of their output, e.g., the price of a bushel of wheat or corn, amounts to a piece-wage for their work and the income they receive, on the average, barely allows them to survive. As with other piece work, it is rarely supervised (unless they work under a putting out arrangement to some corporation), in the presence of agribusiness competition they impose long, intense hours of work on themselves (and often all their family members), they have varied abilities and their varied success results in an income hierarchy (unless they ban together in cooperatives) in which a very few may actually turn a enough of a profit to invest, expand their operations, hire growing numbers of waged workers and actually become the capitalist firm they are portrayed as being.

Concepts for Review

    piece wages
    piece rates

Questions for Review

1. How are piece wages different in form from time wages but the same in essense?

2. How is labor measured in piece wages?

3. How is the product a measure of quality in piece work as well as one of measure? What does this mean for factory supervision and control over workers' activities on the job?

4. How does piece work tend to produce a "natural" wage hierarchy?

5. What other forces associated with the organization of piece work tend to produce hierarhcy?

6. How do piece wages tend to induce the internalization of capitalist discipline? Explain this in the factory and in the school.

7. Discuss the applicability of Marx analysis of piece work and piece wages to such areas of unwaged labor as farm work, housework, school work, the work of unemployment.

8. Discuss the link between piece wages and the putting out system of cottage industry Marx discussed in Chap. 15 and Part VIII.

9. What is the likely relation between rises in productivity and piece rates in the average factory?

10. In what sense are professors as well as students paid on a piece rate basis? How is hierarchy organized among them?

11. How does the form of piece wages hide exploitation?

12. How are little kids in the home often introduced to piece wages?

13. Explain some of the ways the film "Lulu the Tool" illustrates Marx's analysis of the wage and the capitalist relative surplus value strategy.

14. If you were a worker, under what circumstances would you prefer to work under piece wages rather than hourly wages? Why?