"So long as there is one who seeks employment and cannot find it, the hours of labor are too long." -–AFL founder Samuel Gompers (1887)

A history of working people could very well be based on the changes in the number of hours that we work.

Briefly, for example, consider that in humanity’s first primitive stage we worked day and night just to survive. Under slavery, when a surplus of wealth was at long last created, we often worked ourselves to death. Serfs worked most of the time for our feudal lords, but still had some time to work for our own benefit. Capitalists do their very best to extend our working hours beyond what is possible, but we have slowly reduced those hours by organizing and fighting back.

A Working Day Has Two Parts

Karl Marx showed us how to break down a working day into (1) hours worked to maintain ourselves and (2) additional hours worked, unpaid, to enrich the capitalists. Dividing those additional hours by the initial maintenance hours worked gives the rate of exploitation. It is the secret that makes capitalism successful.

If it takes a modern American worker two hours to produce enough wealth to maintain him/ her, and if he/she works another 6 hours every day for the capitalist, then the rate of exploitation is 6 divided by 2, or 300%. The use of machinery and raw materials would complicate the formula but not change the basic relationship between the two parts of a normal working day under capitalism.

Hours Are an Axis of the Class Struggle

One way to define the class struggle is that the capitalists always try to make us work more, and we always struggle to stop them. Nearly all of our gains have come through legislation rather than through individual fights with employers. When we win those individual battles, the employer has a disadvantage compared to his capitalist competitors, and might tend to go out of business. When all the employers lower their hours at once, through legislation, our lot improves.

Engels said, “The determination of the normal working day is the result of many centuries of struggle between employer and laborer. And it is curious to observe the two opposing currents in this struggle. At first, the laws have for their end to compel the laborers to work longer hours; from the first statute of laborers 23 Edward III. (1349) up to the eighteenth century, the ruling classes never succeeded in extorting from the laborer the full amount of possible labor. But with the introduction of steam and modern machinery, the tables were turned. So rapidly did the introduction of the labor of women and children break down all traditional bounds to working hours, that the nineteenth century began with a system of overworking which is unparalleled in the history of the world, and which, as early as 1803, compelled the legislature to enact limitations of working hours.”  (Frederick Engels, “Engels on Capital,” International Publishers, NY, 1937. pg 30)

We Fought for 8 Hours

One of the greatest stories in world labor history is the fight for the 8-hour day. On May 1, 1886, workers of the world tried simultaneous strikes and other job actions. Texas had a large number of them, but the main focus was on Chicago. Strikers at International Harvester were killed there. A police attack against a legal protest meeting in Haymarket Square on May 4 resulted in several deaths. Some of those killed were policemen, and the leaders of the 8-hour movement, whether they were involved or not, were forced to pay the price. In November, 1887, after an internationally scandalous show trial, four of them were executed. To this day, workers of the world commemorate May 1 and the fight for the 8-hour day in Chicago.

We Made Gains

Americans won a partial victory for the 8-hour day in 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed under the Roosevelt Administration. From that time on, most American employers have paid time-and-a-half overtime when they forced or allowed us to work more than 40 hours in a given week. Union contracts have greatly improved on those terms. In that same period, the federal government created an incentive for retirement by passing Social Security. 1965 saw another big gain when Medicare was made available for workers aged 65.

As it gained strength, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) demanded further reductions in working hours without loss of pay. “Thirty for forty with no cut in pay” was a central demand of the American movement until the mid 1950s.

We Produce More, but Keep on Working More

One of labor’s main arguments for shorter hours was and is the steady increases in productivity which are documented by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In some economic quarters, it is not unusual for workers to produce increases of 5% or more than the previous quarter. In other words, we steadily produce more wealth per hour worked, but see no gains for ourselves from it. Employers and their economists often say that productivity gains “allow” employers to raise wages, but no employer raises wages just because he can.

Even if employers did raise wages when productivity rose, it wouldn’t help solve the problem of unemployment. As workers become more productive and produce more, usually because of automation, employers get by with fewer workers. As a result, unions get smaller, weaker, and less able to fight.

Capitalists Continue Push for More Hours

As world competition heated up in the 1970s, American employers began to find ways to extend working hours. By legislation, employers began a process of extending Social Security retirement beyond age 65. During the Clinton Administration, workers won the Family Medical Leave Act, which allowed them to miss work to take care of sickness in their families without being fired. That was a victory, but the general trend since 1980 has been toward extending working hours. There have been a number of court cases in which employers actually required us to work “off the clock” to avoid the overtime law, and terrorized workers did it!

There can be no solution to unemployment without reductions in working hours. If we had a socialist society and workers had only to create enough wealth to satisfy our own wants, how much leisure would we have, and how many improvements might we make with that leisure time?

"His father works, some days for fourteen hours
And you can bet, he barely makes a dollar
His mother goes, to scrub the floors for many
And you'd best believe, she hardly gets a penny
Living just enough, just enough for the city..."  -–Stevie Wonder



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