A short history of shorter work hours
How we can win the 6-hour day
July 2000

The following is from a speech given by Mark Piotrowski in Gainesville for May Day 2000, at the local celebration of International Workers Day:

I was born in Gainesville and have lived here for 25 years. Right now I'm a permanent temp at the University of Florida where I fix computers. I don't have any benefits and or job security. I'm also an organizer with the Alachua County Labor Party. I joined the Labor Party because I'm tired of working so much and not having enough time to spend organizing or spend with my friends and family. And I think that this is something we can change by getting together and organizing.

The Labor Party is an independent political party that was born out of the trade union movement in 1996 to fight for the interests of working people in the political arena. We started with the slogan: "The corporations have two parties, now we have one of our own." The Labor Party is endorsed by 9 international unions including the United Mineworkers of America, The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, PACE (chemical Workers), the California Nurses Association, and the Longshore & Warehouse Union, as well as hundreds of local and regional labor bodies representing over 2 million workers--including the Graduate Assistants United right here in Gainesville.

May Day is to commemorate, in part, the struggle for the 8 hour day, which was real advance for working people when the fight began in the 1880's and when it finally became the law of the land in 1935 through the Fair Labor Standards Act. Now you don't need ME to stand up here and tell you that we're losing ground. That every year we have to work longer hours. That overtime has been going up and is at an all-time high since World War II. That workers in the U.S. now work the longest hours in the industrialized world, surpassing Japan in the early 90's.

So what we'd like to talk about today is "WHY". Why are we working more and more, longer and longer and getting less and less? And what are we going to do about it?

Winning the 8 Hour Day
How did we first struggle for the 8 hour day? In the 1860s, '70s and '80s people were working 10, 14 even 18 hour days in some industries. How did we go from 12-14 hour days to an 8-hour day? That is a big jump....a lot of free time. What was going on in the country then? Well, for the first time, huge trusts & monopolies were forming very quickly. They were getting better at squeezing every bit of production out of the people who worked for them. Conditions got worse, people who had been lured & forced into the industrial workforce from small shops and farms with the promise of a better life, were forced to work longer hours. In short, big business got more organized, so workers got organized to fight back.

At the same time there was widespread disappointment. There was the broken promise of technology--a broken promise which continues. That machines could do our work was supposed to mean that people could produce more and work less...instead, people were working more.

And there was the broken dream of "America". Nearly 6 million people came to America in the 1880s and they were promised a land of economic prosperity. Instead they found a country ruled by corporations and rich people who were all too eager to pit immigrants against one another. So what happened, what changed? Well people organized, they fought, they marched, they struck, they died. The newly-named American Federation of Labor called for a general strike on May 1, 1886 to win the 8-hour day in the majority of industries that still made people work 10, 12 and 14 hour days. 350,000 workers walked out on May 1. 11,000 in Detroit, 25,000 in New York, 40,000 in Chicago, all railroads & stockyards and most industries were shut down in Chicago. 350,000 workers--think about that. That is like two-and-a-half million people going on strike today. And it worked. A lot of industries adopted the 8 hour day because of the massive organizing and international solidarity that resulted from that strike and the Haymarket Affair.

So we had to fight for the 8-hour day. It wasn't given to us by kind and forward thinking employers. And it wasn't created by more efficient technology. It was fought for and won by the labor movement--the American Federation of Labor, the International Working People's Association, the Knights of Labor, the Chicago Labor Union and other groups. Groups that had organized millions of Americans. Unfortunately we've been pushed back again. For example, compared to 1970 we are all working, on average, an extra month a year.

But why? Why are we working more hours?

Corporations need us to work more hours to maximize their profits. In the cut-throat capitalist market, they don't need to just make a profit , every capitalist has to maximize profits. They are doing everything they can to make as much money as they can, to make as much profit off of our work as they can. And for them it is cheaper (and therefore more profitable) to force us to work overtime than to employ more people. Even when they do actually pay us time-and-a-half for overtime it's still cheaper for them than paying for health care and pensions for an additional employee. But even this isn't enough for them. They are trying to get rid of the laws that make them have to pay extra for overtime. Or they jack around our schedules to get out of paying overtime.

And they don't have to pay overtime if you work two different jobs for more than 40 hours a week. You can see this happening right here at the University of Florida. The custodial staff--full timers--are paid so little by UF that most of them have a second job. But that second job isn't considered "overtime" there is no time-and-a-half for us in those cases. This is a big reason we are working more: We're not getting paid enough for the 40 hours we ARE working. Of course if we had a 32-hour work week, with no cut in pay, like the Labor Party calls for, that WOULD cut into their profits and executive salaries.

But there is another reason that the people who control this economy don't want us to work less. They actually don't want there to be full employment. If each of us worked less there would be more work overall, for everyone. Like the old Wobbly song goes:

'Oh why do you work
for eight hours or more?
Two of us could have work
if you'd only work four.'

But why don't they want us all to have jobs? It's because they NEED a pool of unemployed and underemployed people to keep the rest of us in line. They need to be able to point over to that unemployment line when we ask for a raise, or organize a union, or when we don't "go that extra mile". They point and say "hey there sure are a lot of people who'd love to have your job." And those of us in that unemployment line don't want to take someone else's job, but we need to feed our family, need to pay the rent. If we had full employment--if everyone had a job at a living wage--the bosses couldn't play us against each other as easily. So making us work more, forcing us to take up more than our fair share of jobs, protects them from us getting together and demanding more money, shorter work hours, better working conditions.

Some people argue the reason we're working more is "the American work ethic". The media talks a lot about that the long hours put in at the office, on the shop floor, in the cubicles is because we have such a strong work ethic and just want to "see the job done and done right". Well part of that is true. Americans are hard working, we do believe in doing our jobs well. But there is no reason we couldn't do our jobs just as well with a shorter work week and more co-workers. The part they leave out is that in most cases the overtime, the long hours, they aren't choices. Your boss doesn't say "If you don't have anything better to do maybe you'd like to stay a few more hours, but only if you want to." No it's more like "If you don't come in on Sunday, don't bother coming in on Monday".

A friend of mine worked at a travel agency here in town. He was well-liked by his co-workers, increased efficiency in his department, dressed nice--all the things a "good employee" is supposed to do. But he was fired one day. They said "We never see you staying late or taking work home, like the other employees". Great! So now busting our ass at work from 9-5 isn't enough we have to bust our ass at home, or donate our free time to the employers.

The other thing you hear is that we're working more because we just want to have enough money to buy new toys, computers, SUVs, to feed our consumerist desires. Again, in most cases, working overtime is not a choice. Either we are working more because our first job doesn't pay enough for the rent, the daycare, the groceries, the health insurance, the car payments. Or to do our job, to finish it or do it right you HAVE to work more hours because there aren't enough people working with you. We're damned either way. The jobs that pay enough require you to work 50-70 hours a week. The jobs that don't pay well have a mad scramble for overtime hours so people can make ends meet. Or you get a second job.

My mom teaches middle school and she easily puts in 50-60 hours a week--teaching, grading papers, attending faculty meetings. If there was full employment and the schools hired more teachers there would be less work for everyone and the kids would get a better education.

Why We Shouldn't Have to Work Longer
Some folks, seeing this rat race just decide to drop out. But we have to be clear about what we truly want. Running our society will always take work. There is a real need for people to work, for us to produce things. There are roads to be fixed, food to be grown, hospitals and schools to be run, computers & clothing and furniture to be produced. The problem is not that work or production exists, but rather that we have little control over the conditions of our work and the fruits of our labor.

Right now any increase in production or efficiency doesn't get us more pay or short work time. In fact just the opposite is happening, we are not getting to enjoy the fruits of our increased productivity. Since 1948 US worker productivity--the goods and services we produce per hour--has DOUBLED. That means for each hour we work we produce twice as many goods and services as we were 50 years ago. So to have the same standard of living today that we had in 1948, we really should only have to work 1/2 as much. We could have a 4 hour work day or a 20 hour work week. Or we could just work 6 months out of the year. Or only have to work every other year. All of this with the same rate of pay.

But WE aren't getting the benefits of our increased productivity. Because instead of work being organized to meet OUR needs as a society, production is organized to benefit the shareholders and the "bottom line". The only people benefiting from our producing goods in 1/2 the time it used to take are the corporations and their shareholders. That's were all the money is going: to the 5% of people who control 62% of the wealth. We could easily work 32 hours and get paid for 40 since we'd be creating the same amount of wealth--it's just that it would be more evenly distributed.

And if work were really organized to meet the needs of our society just think of how much useless work could be done away with. The millions of hours spent by workers in advertising, insurance, and sales, could be redistributed to education, health care, and public works. And there would still be time left over so that each of us could work fewer hours and would have to work fewer years over the course of our lives. Just look at how much of the newspaper is ads...all that writing, printing and distribution work spent just so companies can fight each other for an increased "market share."

To deal with this situation the Labor Party has developed A Call for Economic Justice. It's an immediate program to alleviate the problems we face as workers today. We believe that by alleviating them, by making tangible advances for working people we can push further and faster towards the type of society we ultimately want.

First we call for a Constitutional Amendment that guarantees full employment: a job or income at a living wage--about $10 hour indexed for inflation. If everyone has a guaranteed income above the poverty level, it is going to be much, much harder for the bosses to pit us against one another--there won't be those people that "would love to have your job" when you ask for a raise or complain about your boss. We will be stronger as a movement to fight for other things we need.

Second, we call for a "social wage" to supplement this $10/hour guaranteed income. A "social wage" is a collection of publicly funded supports that are available to everyone. A National Health Care System, fully funded public education for all, from daycare to college, national pensions, guaranteed vacation. All these things would be publicly-funded and available to everyone--regardless of what job you have, or if you have a job--so no qualifying, no premiums or user fees. Making these things--education, health care, retirement--away from the workplace, making them independent of our jobs, will do two things. It will take away one of the main savings employers get by forcing overtime on us instead of hiring more workers: the money saved by not paying for benefits. And it will give us more power on the job to fight for a short work week, higher pay and better working conditions because employers won't be able to hold the threat of losing our benefits over our heads when we organize, practice worker solidarity or "get out of line."

Third, the Labor Party calls for a 32-hour work week, an end to mandatory overtime and more time off without loss of pay or benefits. This is not any more impossible than the demand for an 8-hour day was in the 1880s. They were calling for an 8-hour day without a drop in pay. We call for a 32 hour work week at 40 hour week pay levels. We want employers to stop mandatory overtime and pay us at least double time for any time worked over 8 hours a day. And give us an hour off with pay for every 2 hours worked overtime. We have to make it more expensive for the employers to use overtime than it is for them to hire more workers. Force them toward full employment and give us more time to spend with our families, more time enjoying the fruits of our labor, more time learning and growing. To this end we also call for mandatory 20 days paid vacation for ALL workers and one year paid educational leave for every 7 years worked. This will give us more time to spend with our families, participate in our communities, and organize for more social change.

But none of this is going to come easily or without a fight. So join up! ... Joining the Labor Party does not affect your ability to vote for the Republicans, Democrats or Green Party, but it does mean you will be joining with thousands of other working people fighting for a better society.

And if you have a union at your job, work to make it stronger, bigger. If you don't have a union talk to your co-workers about starting one. The Central Labor Council of North Central Florida can help you with this. Organizing big strong unions is how we won the advances we enjoy now--a minimum wage, the weekend, shorter work hours, social security--and that is how we're going to push ahead and win new ones.

Background information for this speech was taken from Labor's Untold Story by Boyer and Morais, A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, Time Out! The Case for a Shorter Work Week, by Moody & Sagovac (Labor Notes). All three books are available at the Civic Media Center. The author also thanks the Redstockings Women's Liberation Archives (www.afn.org/~redstock) and Gainesville Women's Liberation for assistance.

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