Raya Dunayevskaya 1959

May 1 and the Shorter Work Day

Source: News & Letters, May 1959. This piece appeared as Dunayevskaya’s regular column, “Two Worlds”;
Transcribed: by Kevin Michaels.

During the first week of May this year the United Steel Workers presented its demand for a shorter work-week. That it is a ludicrously low demand – a cut from 40 to 38 hours a week – is contributing to the fact that even the so-called radical press is giving it little publicity. The demand is of great importance, nevertheless. It is the first time in long, long decades that a union at contract time put such a demand on the negotiation table.

No doubt it was accidental on the part of the present union leaders to issue this demand in the first week of May. But, again, the significance cannot be lost in the accidental nature of their timing when, historically, May 1 is indissolubly connected with the struggles for the eight hour day. The initiation of the struggle for the eight-hour day coincided with the founding of the first National Labor Union in America.

Eight-Hour Leagues sprang up everywhere. “In the United States of America,” wrote Marx, “any sort of independent labor movement was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor with a black skin is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new vigourous life sprang. The first fruit of the Civil War was an agitation for the 8-hour day.” [1]

The severe financial crisis of 1873 dealt a death blow to the Eight-Hour Leagues, but not to the idea for an eight-hour day. In 1884 not only the idea, but the actions to put it into effect, were once again initiated, this time by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, later to be known as the American Federation of Labor. It was this organization which specified that the date for the struggle in the form of a general strike would be May 1st.

The struggle for the eight-hour day during the decade of the 1880s received a real blood bath from the counter-revolutions initiated by the companies with the help of the government. The anarchist labor leaders, Parsons, Spies, Fischer and Engel were railroaded to the gallows.

This unfoldment of the counter-revolution did not stop the movement for the eight-hour day. On the contrary. The conservative head of the A.F. of L., Samuel Gompers, looked for international help. As he put it in his reminiscences of the year 1889: “As the time of the meeting of the International Workingmen’s Congress in Paris approached, it occurred to me that we could aid our movement by an expression of world-wide sympathy from that Congress.”

They got more than sympathy from the International at its Paris Congress, which immediately adopted the following resolution: “The Congress decides to organize a great international demonstration, so that in all countries and in all cities, on one appointed day, the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours...Since a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for May 1, 1890, by the American Federation of Labor at its Convention in St. Louis, December 1888, this day is accepted for the international demonstration.”

The Unity of Practice and Theory

Just as the Marxist world organization had adopted the American choice of May 1 as the holiday that would combine strike action with demonstrations in support of labor’s demand for the eight-hour day, in practice – so, in theory, the struggle for the shorter workday became the axis of Marx’s greatest theoretical work, Capital. Building on the impulse, action, and philosophy of the working class, for a shorter working day, Marx drew the conclusion that the “development of human power which is its own end, the true realm of freedom...can flourish only upon the realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working day is its fundamental premise.” [2]

The Pending Steel Strike

As words, Marx’s phrase – “the development of human power which is its own end” – may sound outlandish. But the thought behind it, the development of the human being instead of greater and greater machines, is precisely what is preoccupying the steel workers presently.

“It will give us a chance to catch our breath,” said one of the steel workers at Homestead, Pa. “We sure need it,” said another. “The speed-up is just killing us.” “Automation has made everything worse,” said a third, “cutting both our employment and security. This cutting of the work-week, if we can get it, would help some.”

It is not that anyone thought that all problems, either of the employed or of the unemployed, would be solved by this minor cutting of the workweek. It is that a beginning must be made somewhere. Reuther is great at shouting about a reduction not only of the workweek but workday when he addresses a meeting of the unemployed. But at negotiation time he is silent as an Egyptian tomb. The whole question of what kind of labor which has been raised by the American workers since Automation has now been made more concrete by the attempt to limit the time when the worker must work for others, and extend the time for his own thoughts.

1. Capital, Vol. 1. From Chapter Ten, “The Working Day.” [Transcriber]

2. Capital, Vol. 3. From Chapter Thirty Eight, “The Trinity Formula.” [Transcriber]