Wage Slavery

Advocates of socialism frequently claim that employers hold workers in wage slavery. They believe that “corporate” bosses force them to work in unbearable conditions at jobs they cannot quit. Adding insult to injury, the “bosses” profit from the excess value created by the workers.

This form of wage slavery only occurs under “capitalism” as practiced in the United States. Socialists want to give the workers control over their work environment. They also want workers to receive some of that “excess” value.

I have some empathy for these complaints. At the age of 19, I worked in a brick and tile factory. The metal building was hot and humid. Dust filled the air. I had to work long periods without a break. Some people might’ve found these conditions unbearable. My fellow workers and I found the conditions acceptable. But, I can see how some people might complain about their working conditions.

“Unbearable” amounts to a personal judgment. Most workers in the United States don’t know the real meaning of “unbearable.”

If I did not like the working conditions, I could’ve quit. But, I only planned to work for the summer. What about the others? Did they have the alternative to just quit?

Of course, in the United States, workers always have the alternative of quitting any job they might hold. Do they, however, experience sufficient outside influence as to make keeping a job they don’t like preferable to seeking a better job elsewhere?

Yes, they experience significant coercion to retain the jobs they currently have. They experience enough pressure to make it feel like wage slavery. From where does that pressure come?

Most of the coercion to maintain a job a worker does not want comes from programs controlled, in one way or the other, by government. To verify this point, let’s look at your paystub again. It includes benefits that you might have to relinquish, in part or whole, if you were to leave your current employment. Here are just a couple of examples:

  • Pension plans tie employees to their jobs by requiring lengthy vesting periods. Such plans generally require the blessing of the federal government.
  • Healthcare plans also bind employees because of various restrictions on portability. Employees who require coverage for pre-existing conditions will frequently lose that coverage if they moved to another job.

Pension and healthcare plans represent a couple of the most significant benefits offered by many corporations in order to tie their employees to their jobs. Such plans do not represent the sort of control a worker would have in unfettered capitalism. In a free market, employees would receive their gross salary, and from that, they would plan their own retirement and healthcare. By controlling their own benefits, employees would shift their preferences and move to new jobs when they so desired.

In my next post, I will address two additional items that arise in claims of wage slavery: 1) worker control or ownership, and 2) receipt of “excess value.”


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