Are U.S. Workers Paid Above the Value of Their Labor Power
from Urgent Tasks Number 10
by Noel Ignatin

The value of labor power, like that of every other commodity, is determined by the labor time necessary for its production. Since labor power resides only in the living individual, its value reduces itself to the value of those commodities which are necessary for the production and reproduction of the worker. But what is "necessary" for the production and reproduction of the worker is itself the product of historical development.

"In contradistinction therefore to the case of other commodities, there enters into the determination of the value of labour-power a historical and moral element. Nevertheless, in a given country, at a given period, the average quantity of the means of subsistence necessary for the labourer is practically known."1

This historical and moral element is the result of a complicated interaction between different classes in society and within the working class itself: for example, does the present standard of what constitutes a "decent" living for an American worker owe more to the struggles of the working class or to the efforts of the capitalist class to promote the "consumer society"? It reflects to a considerable extent the level of technological development attained by a society: many of the articles which today constitute virtually indispensable elements of the worker's subsistence television, electric refrigeration, gas heat, air conditioning have existed for only slightly over a generation.

Moreover, what Marx calls the "moral element" is significantly influenced by national and even regional tradition: for example, French workers would riot in the streets were they forced to swallow the garbage that U.S. workers routinely shovel down their gullets in the name of nutriment, yet can easily make do with an old, small-screen, black-and-white television that even the poorest U.S. worker would give away to the Salvation Army. This historical and moral element, once incorporated into the value of labor power, is very difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge.

Workers must be not merely fed, clothed and housed at the level which has become customary, they must also be trained sufficiently for the tasks they will be expected to perform. The expense of this educational process makes up a portion of the value of labor power, which must be met in some fashion if labor is to reproduce itself. The curtailment of child labor in the U.S. and the growth of a public school system, with the consequent increase in the value of labor power entailed by the need to support nonproductive children, were related to the development of new methods of production which required more highly educated workers. (The struggle for public education is a splendid example of the negation of the negation a working class victory incorporated by capital to bring about a new advance in accumulation; it is the resolution of the previous contradiction becoming one pole of the current one. Truly, the working class struggles not against its defeats but against its earlier victories!)

In spite of the above-enumerated difficulties in quantifying the value of labor power, this value in a particular time and place "is practically known." It can be observed, more or less, in that level beneath which workers do not consider it worthwhile to seek or accept employment. Anyone who has observed the workers over a period of time knows that there is a certain minimum they will accept as consistent with their dignity and the standards that have been established. Among them it is considered acceptable to turn down a job that fails to come up to that minimum, even if it means unemployment and some hardship. Obviously, this minimum acceptable wage varies with the region and especially with the times, and is somewhat different among different sectors of the working class*, but it does exist, enforced by a consensual process.

The operation of the consensual process is often comical: a decade and a half ago there was common in the factories a myth of the Slavic immigrant worker the so-called "DP" [displaced person] who arrived in Chicago with nothing, ate black bread and cabbage soup and lived in a cellar, and after five years bought a three-flat, and a few years later another, and eventually escaped from the factory, continuing to live in a cellar as the janitor of his own building. The myth was based on a certain reality: there were a few cases such as I have described. But the point is, they were ridiculed by the mass of the workers. (Lest anyone suggest that the ridicule was a luxury only the highly paid workers could afford, let me point out that the story was told with greatest mirth and scorn by the lowest-paid sector of the Chicago proletariat, the Black, Mexican and Puerto Rican workers, who thus showed their contempt for those who voluntarily renounced the few worldly pleasures available to a proletarian in pursuit of a dream made of ashes.) Aside from providing needed laughter, the passing around of such stories served another function: by their ridicule of such exaggerated thrift the mass of workers were enforcing discipline within the working class in order to prevent the value of labor power in Chicago from sinking to the level of the rural districts of eastern Europe.

Social Mobility

If the value of labor power is that sum of values required to maintain and reproduce the worker, then it ought to be possible to compare it with the actual wage, or price of labor power, received by a definite group of workers. A simple statement should suffice to explain the principle: if the children of a group of workers become workers themselves at the same level as their parents, that indicates that the parents have received a wage, over time, equivalent to the value of their labor power, since they have managed to reproduce themselves as workers; if the parents are able regularly to promote their children out of the proletariat, that implies a wage above the value of labor power, exceeding it by the proportion of their children that escape; if, in the third case, the working class is unable to maintain itself but instead loses numbers owing to early death, emigration or reduction to pauperism, then the wage of these workers is insufficient to maintain and reproduce themselves as workers, and consequently beneath the value of labor power.

It is evident that the numbers considered must be large enough to be statistically significant, and that the concern must be with averages, not the individual case; otherwise the matter is trivialized. Moreover, a study must consider the outcome over a period of time sufficient to balance out the "seven fat years and seven lean years"; a generation should be long enough. Finally, there is one basic assumption that underlies the approach: no one stays in the working class who doesn't have to. I regard that assumption as unarguable.

Some Evidence

A number of studies have been made of social mobility in the U.S. One of the more recent, briefer and more accessible of these is Has Opportunity Declined in America? by David L. Featherman.2 In that monograph, the writer includes the following table:

Mobility Table

The figures were compiled by asking a sample of men in the civilian labor force the occupation of their fathers at the time the interviewees were sixteen years old. There are certain flaws in the result: the most obvious is that women were excluded from the survey. What effect this would have on the results I couldn't say. Another flaw is the imprecision of the social categories: for instance, are post office workers classified as "lower white collar" or "lower manual"? What about the effect of immigration, for which the table makes no allowance? And what about the unemployed?

Without forgetting various limitations in the data, let us examine what the table tells us. According to the figures, 31.5 percent of male workers held lower manual jobs in 1973. 29.7 percent of all sons grew up in lower manual families not much change between generations. Of those sons who grew up in lower manual families, only 40.8 percent were working in lower manual jobs; 23.7 percent were in upper manual categories, 12 percent were in lower white collar and 22.5 percent were classified as upper white collar apparently considerable upward mobility. Whence, then, is derived the lower manual work force? From two sources the farms (reflecting a sharp decrease in the number of farm workers over the years) and from the downward motion of those strata above lower manual: of those sons who grew up in upper white collar, lower white collar and upper manual families, 17.1 percent, 21.9 percent and 29 percent respectively were at the time of the survey working in lower manual jobs. For ease of calculation, let each percentage point in the bottom row and the last column equal one million, giving us a total of 100 million in the civilian labor force (allowing the figures for men to represent the total, somewhere near the actual total). Using our trusty abacus to make the necessary cross multiplications, we come up with the following figures, rounded off: of the 31.5 million in lower manual jobs, 12 million (40.8 percent of 29.7 million) are from lower manual families; 6 million (29 percent of 20.5 million) are from upper manual families; 2 million are from lower white collar families; 3 million are from upper white collar families; and the remainder come from the farms. Thus the upward mobility of sons from lower manual families is more than compensated for by downward mobility from strata above and from movement off the farms.

Now let us combine the figures for the categories which, for the purpose of this study, must represent the working class lower white collar, upper manual and lower manual. These categories make up 66 percent of the civilian labor force, or 66 million. Of these, 42 million come from families within the same categories. Where do the rest come from? The largest portion come off the farm: of the 22.6 million who reported themselves from farm backgrounds, 66.7 percent, or 15 million, are currently working in lower manual, upper manual or lower white collar positions. The remainder, nine million, have dropped down from upper white collar families.

How does this figure of 9 million "demoted" from upper white collar families into the ranks of the working class compare with the number of those promoted upward out of the ranks of the working class? Of those working today in upper white collar jobs, 30 million people, a majority, 16.3 million, come from the working class. (Another 4 million come from the farms, leaving only 9 million from similar upper white collar backgrounds, reflecting the rapid expansion of this stratum of the population.)

The working class was able to promote 16 million people out of its ranks, out of nearly 60 million of those who reported working class backgrounds, compared to 9 million pushed down into it, leaving a net "promotion" total of 7 million, or 12 percent (disregarding movement from the farm).

Thus, according to the method I advanced earlier in this article, U.S. workers received, on the average, a wage that exceeded the value of their labor power by approximately 12 percent and this in a period which encompassed the thirty-year boom that ended in 1967, the longest period of continued expansion in the history of the country! Those with various theories about the "bought-off" working class are invited to make whatever use they can of that statistic. Is there something wrong with my approach, or with my reading of the figures? (I am certainly not a trained statistician.) I would appreciate hearing from readers.

Finally, is it necessary to add that the research cited above bears not at all on the magnitude of the value of labor power, since that value is determined not by the quantity of use values at the workers' disposal, but by the labor time necessary to produce those values? Indeed, it is that condition which underlies the capitalist strategy of relative surplus value.


*The minimum acceptable level is not so different for Black and white workers as some might imagine, given similar ages, marital status, skill and employment history. This, of course, is no small qualification, since employment discrimination generally takes the form of reserving certain jobs for whites only. This pattern reveals the flaw in the famous $30 billion figure bandied around by various left groups as representing the total of the superprofits reaped by U.S. capital from race discrimination, a figure arrived at by multiplying the per capita income differential between Black and white workers by the number of Black workers. This figure would make sense only if the substance of race discrimination consisted of paying Black and white workers different amounts for the same job. The real value of white supremacy to the U.S. ruling class lies in its use as a measure of control over the entire working class, a control which underlies not "superprofits" but the entire profit system.[return to text]

1. Capital, Volume I, chapter 6.[return to text]

2. Institute for Research on Poverty Number 437-77, University of Wisconsin, Madison.[return to text]

Back to Urgent Tasks Number 10

Back to Main