The struggle for reduced working hours is woven into our DNA as a class. The demand for an eight-hour day without loss in pay launched the modern US labor movement at the founding convention of William Sylvis’s National Labor Union in 1866. This was at a time when eleven or twelve-hour days from Monday through Saturday was not uncommon. The 1877 railroad strikes inspired terrified bourgeois papers to herald the advent of communism in cities like Pittsburgh and St. Louis, all over the contention of the eight-hour day. Our tradition of May Day originates in the 1886 workers’ movement led by Albert and Lucy Parsons, August Spies, and others. Hundreds of thousands of proletarians fought for the eight-hour day, starting in Chicago and spreading countrywide in another great strike wave. Gunfire exchanges with Pinkerton strike-breaking thugs, the mineworker mountain wars, hymns sung by the Wobblies, stump speeches by Eugene Debs, and more were all dedicated in large part to the eight-hour day. The Monday-through-Friday forty-hour work week only came about thanks to the sacrifices of generations of anonymous heroes of the labor movement, and not a few of their lives.
We require reduced working hours to develop as individuals. Marx explained:
Time is the room of human development. A man who has no free time to dispose of, whose whole lifetime, apart from the mere physical interruptions by sleep, meals, and so forth, is absorbed by his labor for the capitalist, is less than a beast of burden. He is a mere machine for producing foreign wealth, broken in body and brutalized in mind. Yet the whole history of modern industry shows that capital, if not checked, will recklessly and ruthlessly work to cast down the whole working class to this utmost state of degradation.
John Maynard Keynes was no communist, once admitting, “The class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie.” However, Keynes promoted an optimistic vista of the future based on the development of the productive forces, and had this to say about future generations: “We shall endeavor to . . . make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while.” Keynes’s theories represented an age when US imperialism leaped forward as the preeminent industrial power in a post–World War I world. He dreamed of the human potential this development could unleash— if, according to him, “rational” policies won the day. Otherwise, to his dismay, revolution would rear its head.
Keynes was wrong. A second catastrophic world war, not “rational change,” propelled the recovery from the Great Depression. Today, capitalist crisis remains unresolved. The world economy is in “secular stagnation”—to put it in neo-Keynesian terms—not a cyclical crisis but an organic one. But the seven-and-a-half times rate of development Keynes put forward as a condition to his envisioned reduction of the working week has now come to pass. So why do we work more than ever while real wages have fallen or stagnated for decades?
The dilemma is simple. Capitalists, competing for profits, must become more efficient profit makers. They can cut wages, racing downwards, or they can invest in productive capital, so that less labor can produce more commodities. When workers fight for higher wages or reduced working hours, we defensively counter the capitalists’ push to lower wages and increase unemployment. More efficient production should mean less work for everyone. That “not enough work” is bad news is a situation peculiar to capitalist wage slavery.
This is why Trotsky, writing in 1938, proposed:
[a] slogan of a sliding scale of working hours . . . all the work on hand would then be divided among all existing workers in accordance with how the extent of the working week is defined. The average wage of every worker remains the same as it was under the old working week. Wages, under a strictly guaranteed minimum, would follow the movement of prices.
In 2014, the average full-time employee worked forty-seven hours a week. We must add to this the precarious nature of the post-recession job market. Many workers juggle multiple jobs, running from one to the other. Some lack even a set schedule, and you wait each day to be called in, hoping not to be sent home early. For Amazon Flex workers, it’s not even a phone call—it’s an app. A social regime of enforced idleness and hazardous overwork coexists for the benefit of the bosses.
This must be considered alongside the decline of the financial situations of the great majority of the population. The younger generation will be the first in American history to experience lower living standards than their parents. Clearly, capitalists prefer working you more and paying you less instead of investing in productive capital. This is the lack of confidence the ruling class has in its own system. This is the organic crisis of capitalism; they find it more profitable to keep billions idle in tax havens than invest that money into their own businesses.
This is all borne in human terms. A child’s school teacher may be writing lesson plans before her evening shift at Dollar General. The Uber driver or trucker next to you on the road might have blurry vision after driving for long hours. If you live in a long-term care facility, the person assisting you at mealtime and with hygiene might be on their third sixteen-hour shift in a row, staffed eighteen residents to each caregiver.
On the forums of the job search website Indeed, workers anonymously vent their exhaustion. One worker at Humana, a health insurance company, identified as “55 still alive trying to survive in Phoenix, Arizona” says,
It’s the constant stress and required OVERTIME, while horse-whipping the techs to go faster and faster (gotta keep that 35% growth happening so MM can get millions more, and we got NOTHING this past year as a raise, not even a holiday dinner) . . . All that matters is the bottom line, money, denying as many claims as possible, fear, intimidation, favoritism.
In the absence of a militant labor movement, workers live out these conditions as individuals, raw material for exploitation. Capitalists transform the best of us into machines who depreciate every week we go in to work for them. Like cattle branding, the mark of capital is left on the puffy and rumpled faces of our middle-aged parents, our best friends from high school, our bus drivers, the cashier we chat to, the grandmother you stand next to while you wait for the subway.
But when we come together as a class we can change everything. One day we will fight for the right to develop as humans, free from wage slavery, free to pursue life as we would live it. Our demands will be emboldened by the confidence we find in each other and in victories won. The last century of capitalist development has been one massive robbery of human potential. The conditions of our lives must be brought up to speed with the wealth of our society. Socialist Revolution demands a twenty-hour work week at forty hours’ pay. Backed by the power of strikes, occupations, and expropriations, a mass socialist movement will win that and more.