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Susan Green

Wages and the Last War

(30 December 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 38, 30 December 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

As far back as October 5, the Kiplinger Washington Agency was writing to its big-shot clients: “Whether we are ‘in the war’ is a technical borderline quibble. Certainly we are close to it. Not necessarily by days, or even by weeks, but perhaps by months.”

Since the above was written, the aforesaid big-shots have tasted the war appetizer of the enormous profits of intensive war preparation. Their appetites are sharpened now for the grand feast. That makes “whether we are in the war” even less than “a borderline quibble.”

The workers must think seriously about this situation. On greased wheels they are being rushed into the world conflict. What will THEY get out of it? WHAT THEY GOT OUT OF THE LAST WAR IS SOME THING TO GO BY.

A High Price

The workers of’ the world have a rough idea what the last war cost them. The 20,000,000 dead came mainly from their class. The overwhelming majority of the 10,000,000 wounded were workers. The millions who were wiped out by the epidemics following in the wake of the war were poor people. In short, the workers were uprooted, murdered, wounded, smitten by disease. That’s what they paid.

That they did not collect “democracy” for the high price they paid, is a fact that does not need proving. Definitely, the blood of the workers of the world flowed in vain when it comes to “democracy”. And this is true in America as elsewhere. To cite only one glaringly revealing fact: in the United States in 1940 there are poll tax laws keeping 10,000,000 citizens from exercising their “democratic” right to vote. We all know that the “ideals” of the last war were a fake.

REAL Wages

What, then, about the less “idealistic” side of things? There was plenty of CASH in it for the bosses. Was there any cash in it for the workers? Did those who were not slaughtered in the war find themselves better off economically, if not politically?

The shrewd propagandists in the service of the imperialists circulated the idea that during the war the workers were literally rolling in money. Factory hands were pictured as going to work in $20 silk shirts. Every working woman ,was supposed to be the proud owner of at least one fur coat. Two or three chickens were said to be flapping around in every pot. These clever propagandists discovered a fictitious river of milk and honey in which they said the working people were raving a lot of fun.

What wages did the workers REALLY get during the war?

It is not generally known that, at the beginning of the last world war, the wages of the workers had declined so that they were less than they had been in 1900. In a word, the standard of living the workers were asked then to “defend” had been bombarded successfully right here to such an extent that they were worse off in 1914 than they had been in 1900.

One of the many attestations to this fact was made in May 1920 by no less an authority than E.B. Wood, economics professor of Dartmouth College, speaking before the eminent American Academy of Political and Social Science.

The professor went on to say that in 1917 and 1918 – THE YEARS WHEN THE UNITED STATES WAS IN THE WAR – there was “a further shrinkage in the position of the American industrial worker.”

The truth of this statement, affirmed in many magazine articles after the war was over, is again affirmed today by no less an authority on things economic than United States Assistant District Attorney Thurman W. Arnold, in charge of “trust-busting”. The following passage is quoted from his latest book, The Bottlenecks of Business:

“What happened to the ordinary consumer in the boom which followed the outbreak of the war in 1914? When the war first broke out there was a drop in prices and general distress. Then came the war inflation which robbed productive industry for war boom industry, resulting in complete unbalance of prices. We were confronted with the spectacle of the southern farmer going hat in hand to the newly-created millionaires and asking them for charity’s sake to buy a bale of cotton. There were no controls. REAL WAGES WENT DOWN ONE THIRD WHILE THOUSANDS OF NEW FORTUNES WERE MADE.”

You can bet your last button that during the last war the silk shirts and fur coats were not on the backs of AVERAGE working men and women, and that the chickens in AVERAGE workers’ pots somehow turned into cheap lamb stew. That’s how much propagandists of the boss class can lie.

The shameful truth is that the workers not only sacrificed their precious lives, but also the equivalent of good hard cash. Real wages went down one-third, says Mr. Arnold. It does not take an Einstein to figure out that during the war, when they were supposed to be living high, the workers on the average were getting only two-thirds of what they had before.

What happened to workers’ wages when it was all over – when the trumpets stopped blaring and the flags were furled? Hold on to something: The prosperity that befell the laboring man may be too much for you.

In the fall of 1919 weekly earnings actually overtook the retai’ price of food, and at the beginning of 1920 real wages appeared on the average to have risen to their 1914 level, which, as stated above, was less than in 1900. However, economists were hopeful that this “loss since 1900 might also be retrieved.”

Summarizing labor’s position at the end of 1919 – (and again he is only one of many who made statements like the following) – the same Professor Wood, in a speech before the same eminent American Academy of Political and Social Science flatly stated:

“American labor has prospered during the past five years IN A NEGA’TIVE SENSE, in that, in spite of high prices, IT EMERGED AT THE END OF 1919 NO WORSE OFF THAN BEFORE.”

He said in the same speech:

“This is being achieved in a period of full employment and insistent labor demand; any widespread falling off will mean lower wages.”

He did not say, but it is nevertheless true, that even full employment would not have brought the workers the “negative prosperity” he described, if the WORKERS HAD NOT FOUGHT FOR IT. The year 1919 was one that stands out in labor history. It was a period of great strikes. Labor had to FORCE even this “negative prosperity” from the thieving bosses who had made fabulous fortunes out of the war.

War? What For?

Therefore, pushing aside all the ballyhoo, what actually did the workers collect for their sacrifices in the last war?

  1. During the war their average standard of living was ONE THIRD LESS than it was in 1914.
  2. After the war they got back to the 1914 level, but only by fighting hard for it – not in Flanders but in the USA – not against German workers but against American bosses.

Workers may well ask: “WAR? WHAT FOR?”

Today, as before the last war, the propagandists are hard at work to create the illusion that the workers will get prosperity out of this, second world war. There comes the story from Bridgeport, Connecticut, that the sales of champagne have already increased 300% due to purchases by workers in industries that received war orders. This time the propagandists will discover a river of champagne that the workers are going to be splashing around ill. DON’T BE FOOLED.

In the same book by Mr. Arnold is a chart of the United States National Income from 1850 to 1940. Referring to this chart, Mr. Arnold says:

“The end of the chart (for the year 1940) shows our national income BELOW THE LEVEL OF 1920 in spite of the fact that we have a much larger population and a greater productive capacity than we had twenty years ago.”

The workers’ share in this de creased national income is of course proportionately less than it was in 1920 – not that we need a chart to tell us that. In a word, on the eve of the United States entering the new world war, the workers’ position is worse than it was twenty years ago – just as on the eve of the last war, the workers’ position was worse than it had been in 1900. And to carry through on the statements of the economists in 1920, as shown above, the workers’ position in 1920 was no better than in 1900. Again the workers are asked to “defend” a standard of living that has been progressing like the cow’s tail – downward.

When it’s all over this time – if the workers allow themselves to be dragged into it – professors of economy will make speeches before eminent bodies like the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and as after the last war, will flatly state: “American labor has prospered during the past five years IN A NEGATIVE SENSE.” In 1945, after great sacrifices in a barbarous imperialist war, labor will be no better off than it is in 1940 – which is pretty bad.

And perhaps the professors will not even be able to say that.

Again referring to the Kiplinger Washington Agency’s letter of advice to its big-shot clients, I quote the following warning to them:

“The nation’s new industry, the war industry, will stimulate, will give a lift for a while, but it is unproductive and destructive, and A FEW YEARS HENCE WILL COME THE TIME OF RECKONING!”

This should be a double warning to the workers. When the time of reckoning comes, the workers are the ones to suffer. The after-the-war depression already casts its shadow before it. Workers may well ask: “WAR? WHAT FOR?”

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