Wages in the Soviet Union were supposed to conform to Marx's notion of the lower stage of communist society in which workers would be paid according to their contributions to the social product and on the basis of equal rewards for equal work. Factors taken into account in the assignment of wage levels typically included the arduousness and dangerousness of work, skill levels or necessary qualifications, and the degree of responsibility. Occupations in which women predominated, such as teaching, medicine, infant care, cleaning, and clerical and sales work, invariably were graded below male-dominated occupations.
In early 1918 Lenin advocated the use of piece-work as opposed to time-based wages as an appropriate system to stimulate labor discipline and productivity. He also grudgingly acknowledged the necessity of paying specialists (e.g., managers and engineers) more than ordinary workers. Although these policies were opposed by the Left Communist faction and many rank-and-file Bolsheviks, they were incorporated into the wage scales constructed by respective trade unions. During the years of war communism, labor was in effect an obligatory service to the embattled state, which in turn assumed the responsibility to provide work and at least a caloric minimum in the form of employee rations. Payment in kind was ubiquitous, and no sooner did workers receive their wage than they repaired to the black market to barter it for other goods.
The semblance of a normal monetary system of wages, based on contractual agreements between trade unions and corresponding trusts, developed under the New Economic Policy, and wages rose steadily. By 1927 nominal wages were estimated to be about 11 percent above the 1913 average, and this did not include the socialized wage consisting of free medical care, social insurance, and other welfare provisions. Whereas the First Five-Year Plan envisioned a further increase in nominal wages of 44 percent and real wages of nearly 68 percent—in fact, the standard of living of wage earners plummeted. It is estimated that by 1932 real wages were at about 50 percent of their 1928 level. Moreover, shortages in cooperative stores drove workers to rely on the private market, where prices of agricultural produce were approximately eight times higher than in 1928. The prevailing labor shortage caused employers to resort to various sleights of hand to attract and retain workers. They included paying workers at grades higher than those outlined in wage handbooks, granting special bonuses that amounted to permanent additions to their basic pay, paying for fictitious piece work and defective output, and manipulating the use of the progressive bonus system for overfulfillment of production quotas. Despite their technical illegality, these practices became permanent features of Soviet economic life.
In 1931 the state introduced a wage-scale reform under the banner of combating petty bourgeois egalitarianism that widened differentials between lower and higher wage-tariff categories. Simultaneously it expanded the use of progressive piece-rates that would rise with the increase of individual workers' actual output. This approach remained in force until the late 1950s when a new wage reform was gradually phased in. It entailed increases in basic wages and production quotas, the reduction in the number of wage scales and the simplification of rates within each scale, the elimination of progressive piece-rates, and a modest shift of pieceworkers to time-based wages. The major objective of the reforms—to create a stable and predictable system of incentives—appears to have failed largely because of the uncertainties and irregularities of supplies and managerial collusion with workers in compensating for them. Hence the Brezhnev-era aphorism, "They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work."
See also: economic growth, soviet; monetary overhang; war communism
Filtzer, Donald. (1986). Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialization: The Formation of Modern Soviet Production Relations, 1928–1941. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
Filtzer, Donald. (1992). Soviet Workers and De-Stalinization: The Consolidation of the Modern System of Soviet Production Relations, 1953–1964. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Lewis H. Siegelbaum