Socialist Worker

Why do bosses get more than nurses?

by Judy Cox looks at pay inequality and exploitation under capitalism
Issue No. 1823

THERE IS vast inequality in what people get paid. The press may criticise one or two particular fat cats, but it takes for granted the everyday inequality between managers and most workers. Why should such inequality exist?

Nurses come top of every opinion poll taken to find the most socially useful job. Accountants and lawyers always come near the bottom. Yet both these groups of workers grab much more pay than nurses receive. We are told this inequality is inevitable because of market forces. Top executives justify their huge pay packets by claiming they get the market rate for their jobs.

They say their bulging pay packets reflect their huge talents and entrepreneurial spirit. The same managers tell workers fighting against poverty pay that they are pricing themselves out of jobs.

Management bureaucrats, who would not get out of bed for what firefighters earn, tell public sector workers campaigning for more money that they are robbing other workers. These market-driven rewards are not fair or inevitable.

The inequality of income is based on a more fundamental inequality, one that is hidden most of the time. Workers do not own any of the things we need to produce goods or services. We do not own the buildings we work in, the machinery we use or the land that is farmed.

The bosses own all these means of producing things. They didn't get them by working hard or being brilliant. They got them because their great great grandfather enslaved other human beings or because daddy gave them a leg up.

The majority of people have to work under a bullying manager, for crap wages, because they have no other access to these means of production. Workers have no choice but to work for someone else, to sell their labour to the boss for a wage, to exist on punitive benefits or to starve.

When you go to work you are selling your labour power or your ability to work for a certain length of time. You wouldn't be very effective at work if you were starving, ill and homeless, so the bosses have to pay enough in wages to cover things like rent, food and clothing. Labour is unique.

Put to work it creates the wealth the capitalist system needs to keep running. It has been estimated that in Britain today it takes around three hours for the average worker to produce enough to cover the basic costs of living.

Sadly, we have to work for much longer than that. The bosses steal the excess you produce in the extra hours you work. They can demand that you work for the time they want because their ownership of the means of production gives them immense power. They call the excess workers produce over and above what they need to live profit.

This is what socialist Karl Marx called exploitation. Most people, when they think of exploitation, think of particularly gruesome workplaces like sweatshops, or especially vicious bosses. All workers are exploited, even those on relatively good wages, because they produce more than the bosses pay them in wages.

Capitalists want to push back the proportion of value that goes to the workers. Whatever they think personally, they are locked into a competition with other bosses. They have to reinvest some of the profits they steal from us in new machinery so as not to be outdone by rivals.

This means they want to constantly increase the rate at which their workers are exploited. And workers want to increase the amount that goes on their lives and grab back a little of what the bosses steal from them. The process is the same for workers in the public sector. Public sector workers do not produce physical objects but the work they do is key to keeping the system running.

They too are exploited by managers who want them to work harder, for longer, for less. This means there is a constant struggle between the bosses and the workers. It doesn't mean workers are permanently rebelling. But it does mean there is class bitterness, a feeling of 'them and us'.

Workers today are increasingly seeing through management gobbledygook about partnership and pulling together. Sometimes the hidden resentment against supervisors bursts out into the open with strike action or occupations of workplaces. Strikes show the reality of exploitation. When workers stop working they demonstrate their own power.

Workers make the enormous wealth that exists in society. They can grab some of it back from the bosses by striking. Workers also have the power and collective interest to take control of the wealth they produce and direct it to satisfying human needs.


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Article information

Features
Sat 26 Oct 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1823
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