The piece-work system aroused my interest. Although I had read about it, its contradictory nature left me perplexed. I couldn’t even see it as a compromise solution. In one newspaper, for instance, a Hungarian expert in ‘management science’ claimed that payment by results was the most perfect form of socialist remuneration, since it embodied the principle: ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his work’. In the same paper, however, though not in the same issue, an old Communist who now holds a prominent position recalled in glowing terms a comrade who, before the War, had organized workers’ demonstrations against the Bedeaux system, the ‘scientific’ method of payment by results of those days. I looked up statistics and learned that the majority of industrial workers are on piece-work. I also found out—though this is common knowledge—that only workers are allowed to enjoy this chemically pure form of socialist wage-labour; their superiors have to be content with more backward forms. But what really interested me was a topic which no one had so far discussed in front of the esteemed public—myself included: what is it actually like to be on piece-work?
‘I can see they’ve shown you what you’re supposed to do. But how to earn money, that’s something they’ve not taught you.’ M. speaks almost without emphasis, so that his words sound all the more weighty. He is fifty-four, has been working fourteen years on a milling-machine, and takes good care to see that he puts 2500 forints a month in his pocket. ‘You have to know the tricks of the trade’, he says. ‘Right? That’s what it’s all about.’ I nod, and M. sums it up like this: ‘If it was up to them, they’d pay you so little you’d even have to go and beg for a glass of water. They don’t give a damn about you.’
What does one have to do? For my section of 100 to 120 men, working at boring, turning and milling, there are three rows of machines in the immense shop. The adjacent row of machines belongs to the next section. There are four sections in the shop altogether.
Our section includes eight operators manning eight milling-machines in two shifts: each man handles two machines.
By and large, the new and old machines are fairly similar. The oldest ones are twenty to twenty-five years old and on their sides one can see traces of two markings: on one side the emblem Manfréd Weiss Csepel, and on the other Rákosi Werke Csepel—the latter has been partly scratched out and now one can only see Werke Csepel.
The machines are designed for the full effort of a single man. ‘What are you so surprised about? You’ll work two machines and that’s that. We talked ourselves hoarse when they brought in the two-machine system’, said M. early on. ‘I’m the only one left who used to work one machine. The others have gone. The new men started on two machines right away. And those who left are working two machines in their new jobs too—if they’re still doing milling, that is.’
Someone who stood by my machine and watched me at work might well think I understood the ‘tricks of the trade’, as I go from one to the other, adjust, lift, tighten screws, throw switches and so on. But I’m at a dead end: cold sweat and a trembling stomach come as I hold myself together under the pressure of work and my own situation. This feeling first appeared when I had already mastered the machines, and it hasn’t left me since.