Karl Marx on the struggle for a shorter workday

A Walmart warehouse worker moves pallets of heavy goods. Photo: Jolie Puidokas / Marketplace
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This year marks the 130th anniversary of the May 4, 1886, rally at Haymarket Square in Chicago, called to protest a police riot the day before. Many people know the story of the anarchists and socialists framed up and executed or sentenced to life in prison for the explosion of a bomb at that May 4 demonstration.

The Haymarket martyrs were pioneers of the movement for the eight-hour day. But even pioneers have a back story. On this anniversary, it’s worth taking a peek at that background — and it’s also illuminating to think about the profound meaning of the fight for a shorter workday.

May Day’s pre-history. The Haymarket martyrs stood on the shoulders of fighters who preceded them. Marx gives credit to the abolition of slavery for sparking new life in the U.S. labor movement in Capital, Volume I, published in 1867, in a section on the length of the workday.

In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California.

The General Congress of labor at Baltimore (August 16th, 1866) declared: “The first and great necessity of the present, to free the labor of this country from capitalistic slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working-day in all States of the American Union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is attained.”

At the same time, the Congress of the International Working Men’s Association at Geneva, on the proposition of the London General Council, resolved that “the limitation of the working-day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortive … the Congress proposes eight hours as the legal limit of the working-day.”

Although the movement for the shorter workday had its ebbs before reaching high tide almost 20 years after Marx wrote these words, his ability to see the dynamics at work among things — slave labor and free labor, the U.S. movement and the European movement — allowed him to also see the shape of the future.

The meaning of each hour of labor. The hours that go into making up the workday mean different things to the people who sell the labor and those who buy it.

For the worker, each hour of work is an hour spent to acquire the means of survival — and an hour not spent with friends or family, on creative pursuits, studying, being politically active, resting, or just happily being a couch potato. For the person who buys this worker’s labor-power, every hour that creates economic value beyond the amount the boss has to pay the worker produces what Marxists call surplus value. In essence, this is time the worker gives the corporate owner for free.

The struggle over the length of the workday is, at heart, about how much time employees spend working for themselves, and how much for the employers. The class struggle doesn’t get any more basic than this.

Marx discusses the stakes for workers in Capital.

“What is a working-day? What is the length of time during which capital may consume the labor-power whose daily value it buys?” … To these questions capital replies: the working-day contains the full 24 hours, with the deduction of the few hours of repose without which labor-power absolutely refuses its services again. … Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfilling of social functions and for social intercourse, for the free-play of his bodily and mental activity, even the rest time of Sunday … — moonshine!

But in its blind unrestrainable passion, its werewolf hunger for surplus-labor, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the laborer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery. It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers. …

Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labor-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labor-power, that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the laborer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.

Looking ahead. Today, with the eight-hour day a reality on paper, adults employed full time in the U.S. work an average of a soul-sucking 47 hours a week. Meanwhile, the real unemployment rate is above 20 percent, when people who have given up looking for work in discouragement are counted. Even the government’s own figures acknowledge that 7.8 million people are jobless.

The answer to both problems is a renewed fight to shorten the workday — with no cut in pay (see “Unemployment fix: 30 hours work, 40 hours pay”). This may seem pie-in-the-sky, in these days of reactionary Trumpism. But a boost in class consciousness will come about, at some point, as the result of the same conditions that are fueling the anger and fear that Trump now exploits. Key to this development will be tenacious education by today’s descendants of those radicals and labor militants who launched the fight for the eight-hour day in the 1800s.

As preeminent European socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote in an 1894 article: “As long as the struggle of the workers against … the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands. And, when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance, then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.”

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