What decides the level of our wages? The capitalist media make it seem that wages are the outcome of discussions before tribunals. One example is the un-Fair Work Commission. It recently added $16.90 to the minimum weekly wage. The boss-class was pleading for no more than six dollars. The ACTU had asked for thirty.

To some extent, the Commissioners balanced the needs of capital against the necessities for the lowest paid. But that calculation played a tiny part in the outcome.

Why did neither side get all it wanted?

The answer is because our wages are decided by the relative strength of the contending classes. The class struggle sets the socially necessary costs of reproducing labour-power.

How much money is ‘socially necessary’?

Marx pointed to cultural differences. The English worker, for instance, wanted ale and the French wine. Engels explained accommodation costs. If workers pay rent, wages have to meet that expense. However, if we own our houses, the bosses will try to reduce wages accordingly. Today, it is almost impossible for a working family to exist without at least one second-hand vehicle to get to work. That expense is ‘socially necessary’ because of the lack of public transport.

However, ‘socially necessary’ goes way beyond material conditions. ‘Socially necessary’ includes the political, the cultural and the industrial.

The political intervenes because the state resorts to open violence. We saw that when the police rioted during the Grocon dispute.

            One cultural element in ‘socially necessary’ is the notion of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. A second cultural element is the background propaganda of television dramas. They never show that workers alone add value to the wealth of nature.  Rather, the programs reinforce the lie that capital creates jobs.

A further element in ‘socially necessary’ is industrial. The latest wage rise would have been even less if United Voice had not been campaigning for years around a Clean Start for cleaners. Those actions created public support. They strengthened the wage demands in workplaces. 

But the impact of union action is limited by the laws against ‘unprotected’ industrial action. A nation-wide cross-industry campaign like the one against WorkChoices would have lifted the increase towards the $30 mark.

BLF secretary Norm Gallagher spelt out BLF strategy and tactics in the 1970s. The union would ‘tenderise’ the employers before they got to court. Once there, the lawyers would ‘grill’ them. That approach worked in the 1970s for two main reasons. First, our victory of our class in the 1969 O’Shea dispute had broken the penal powers.

The boss-class therefore had to regroup. It did so with the Trade Practices Act of 45D and E against secondary boycotts.

The second reason for the BLF wins was its depth of workplace organization. Militant delegates exposed the lie about ‘a fair day’s pay’.

Hence, the campaign for wages and conditions has to be waged on every front: the industrial, political, and cultural.  Those struggles open paths  to socialism.

To repeat: our wages are decided by the relative strength of the contending classes. Gallagher had another way of putting this truth: ‘You won’t get from the courts what you can’t hold at the gate.’

See also: Marxism

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