A Week’s Work For a Pair of Boots

1950s advert for Wolverine work boots - probably American

1951 article on the cost of living crisis, price increases and the failure of the Labour Party and unions to do anything effective about them. From the Syndicalist Workers Federation's Direct Action newsletter.

Submitted by Fozzie on May 30, 2023

“Never before”, declared a delegate to the recent A.E.U.1 annual conference “has a man had to work a week to buy a pair of boots”.

This apt comment of an engineering worker, crystallises in one sentence the feelings of the overwhelming majority of the population. Never before have price increases continued so relentlessly as during the past twelve months. Never before has so much talk been wasted on the subject of price controls – and so little done. There is no need to mention the innumerable items which have increased in price. It is sufficient to say that it now takes a week’s work to buy a blanket and eight years’ wages to buy a house – if you can live on air in the meanwhile.

Since the beginning of this year, official estimates admit that the cost of living has gone up by some nine per cent, or eleven shillings a week to the average worker. Still there is no sign of respite. Wholesale prices have, in the last six months, gone up by 30 per cent. This means that, by the end of the year, the average £6 a week worker will be 30s a week worse off. To offset this, the government would have us believe that we are, on average, receiving seven shillings a week more in the pay packet. This increase, of course, exists mainly on paper. The chief beneficiaries are such people as the higher-paid civil servants, who received, not long ago, pay increases of up to £15 a week. In view of the present size of the Civil Service, this represents a not inconsiderable factor – and a great strain – on what is now termed “the national economy”.

Smash and Grab

In answer to this fantastic situation, what, it may be asked, has the trade union movement done. Mr E.F. Fryer, Chairman of the T&GWU conference held at Whitley Bay a few weeks ago, gave the answer. He urged that a policy of wage restraint was still necessary and that union members – who include 95s a week railwaymen – should not adopt a policy of “smash and grab”. The only hope he could hold out was that they would not see union members suffer "in the general wages movement which is now taking place" The conference then went on to discuss workers who were abusing sickness benefit schemes and robbing the boss.

The record of the Labour Government, in this respect, is no better. Week in and week out, senior ministers appeal to the industrial workers, "not to use the present favourable employment situation as a lever to raise their wages." With the same monotonous regularity, the President of the Board of Trade meets the barons of industry to discuss general price increases.

We know, from our own experience, that talk of price controls is useless. Despite the fact that industrial production is nearly half as much again as before the war, and exports last month reached a record figure for all time, our standard of living is deteriorating. The armament economy of the entire world is absorbing the world's wealth. This, of course, quite apart from the fact that, whenever the workers' organisations fail, as they are doing at present, to conduct at active struggle for higher wages at the expense of profits, organised capital reaps even greater dividends at the expense of wages. A glance at any issue of the "Financial Times" will show that profits have never been better than at the present time,

Fighting Machines

The only successful struggles that have been waged during recent years have been unofficial. The trade unions, integrating themselves with the state machine, and bent on getting governmental positions for their leaders, have no time or use for the dangerous road of really fighting for wage increases. The unofficial movements and committees, operating very much on syndicalist lines, have replaced the trade unions as the fighting organisations of the industrial working class.

We believe that these movements should not regard themselves as temporary "pep groups" within the trade unions, but as the workers' organisations of the future. Not only as the fighting machines for the day-to-day struggles for improved wages and conditions, but as the means of ending the profit system and the rule by one class over another. Nobody who has vested interests, as the trade union leaders have, in maintaining the triangle of employers, government officials and trade union bureaucrats can accomplish that. Only the industrial workers, in whose interests it is to end the system, will do it.

  • 1 Amalgamated Engineering Union