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. . . so long as there is one worker who seeks employment and cannot obtain it, the hours of labor are too long.
In 1791 when the journeymen carpenters of Philadelphia went out on strike, they resolved, “That in future, a Day’s Work, amongst us, shall be deemed to commence at six o’clock in the morning, and terminate at six in the evening of each day.”
That was the first recorded strike in this country for shorter working hours, the carpenters fighting to eliminate the sun-up to sun-down 15-hour day. For nearly 200 years, American workers have fought constantly to reduce both the hours of the work-day and the days of the work-week.
Not only is the battle for shorter hours the most continuously-fought issue in U.S. labor struggles, but it is also the single most unifying issue within the working class. Workers have fought for shorter hours not merely against their individual boss, but against all bosses, as a class. And in these battles, as shall be seen, all barriers of race, sex, age or national origin have been wiped away. When workers fight all together as a class for one great demand, they exercise their greatest power in their own best interests.
Of all workers’ demands, the fight for shorter hours has been the biggest single spur to unionization. The intolerable length of the workday–up to 12 hours and more–and the necessity to work six and seven days a week impelled millions of workers to get together and organize themselves into collective, fighting bodies–unions–to make demands for an easier and decent life as a united, militant group, not as individuals begging the boss for a few crumbs.
From such battles have been produced the greatest and most militant leaders of the U.S. working class–the famous ones, such as Big Bill Haywood, William Z. Foster and the heroes of the Haymarket Massacre, as well as thousands of unsung heroes from lesser-known battles who have been buried by the bosses’ historians. The shorter-hours struggle has created real leaders of the rank and file, who refused to sell out even under pain of death–and there were many who gave their lives in violent class battle rather than make a deal with the boss.
The unity of workers around this demand has leaped the boundaries of any one country to embrace the working class internationally. It has been a world-wide struggle of workers as symbolized by May Day, a holiday of the international working class, which was born in 1886 right here in the United States in the fight for the eight-hour day.
Workers have fought for shorter hours as an immediate demand, to enjoy a little easier life as well as to reduce unemployment and make their jobs a bit more secure. But because the nature of the demand backs the bosses into a corner more so than most other demands, it has forced the rulers to expose their capitalist system more nakedly as the oppressive and repressive force it is. This violent reaction on their part has spurred workers to a greater understanding of the long-range necessity to not just fight for immediate demands but to overthrow the bosses and their government completely.
When workers struggle together and get a small taste of a better life, it increases the desire to receive more and more of the value of what they produce. As shall be seen, the struggle for shorter hours has brought out this desire and understanding more clearly than any other. So the fight for shorter hours stands out as a giant step on the road to the destruction of capitalism and the establishment of a workers’ government and workers’ power.
In January 1972, there were a “reported” five million unemployed. However, millions are not reported as out of work because they have given up looking for non-existent jobs. More millions are on some form of public assistance, welfare or other starvation-level “aid” not counted by the government as unemployed. There are millions working part-time who would want, but cannot get, full-time jobs. And finally, there are nearly three million in the armed forces, most of whom would be unemployed if they were civilians (in fact, that’s why many youths enlist; they can’t find jobs).
So there are probably somewhere between ten and fifteen million workers who are actually out of a full-time civilian job who might want and need one.
The existence of such a large body of unemployed workers puts greater pressure on those still working. It allows the bosses to use this reserve army of unemployed as a club over their heads, threatening to replace them with someone who will work for less if they (those still employed) don’t toe the bosses’ mark on anything and everything–wages, hours, grievances, and the rate of production. Mass unemployment has job insecurity built into it.
Because workers have risen up to fight against these worsening conditions, in strikes, ghetto rebellions, marches and demonstrations, the ruling class has been forced to squeeze the vise still tighter to maintain and increase their profits. Because of constant walkouts to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of living, the Nixon Administration has intervened directly with a wage freeze law that tries to put the determination of wages, hours and conditions into the hands of a Pay (Freeze) Board rather than being decided in the open class struggle at the point of production. The bosses cannot depend completely on their weakened sellout lieutenants in the labor movement any more–the Meanys, Woodcocks, Abels, Fitzsimmons, Bridges and all the rest.
One major demand of this Pay Board is that workers speed up their rate of production, as if it wasn’t backbreaking enough already on assembly lines throughout the country. The more speed-up, the more produced by less workers, the more unemployment, the still greater pressure on workers to produce more to hold onto a dwindling number of jobs. (For instance, in 1965, 584,000 steel workers produced 131 million tons of steel; in 1972, only 520,000 workers could produce the same amount-while the actual amount of basic steel workers had fallen to 430,000 in the Fall of’71, the lowest since the depression of the 1930’s, according to the New York Times, Jan. 30, 1972. And this means, “As volume goes up, output per man hour will go up, with the steel makers cashing in on billions ...”)
While it’s hard enough to pay the rising prices (creating tremendous profits for the bosses) while working, it’s impossible to pay them without a job or on welfare. When “average hourly or weekly wages” are reported, they refer to those rates companies pay to employed workers; they don’t take into account the weeks and months many workers spend without a job during the course of a year (or a lifetime, for that matter).
An additional burden is placed on the backs of black, Latin, Asian and Indian workers. These victims of racism–on which bosses’ super-profits are based–get the lowest-paying and hardest jobs, are generally the last hired and first laid off, and therefore have double the jobless rate of white workers and find themselves at the bottom of the heap in the inflationary spiral. The bosses use racist ideology to try to get white workers to believe that these minority-group workers are a “threat” to the white workers’ jobs, and that therefore the white workers should fight the black or Latin workers–not the bosses who are the real enemy–to protect what little they have.
On top of all this, capitalism’s rat race produces a more frantic pace and less time for leisure among families. To try to pay today’s prices, workers either have to work two jobs, or work overtime on a regular basis (many New York City phone workers’ average work-week runs closer to 60 hours than to 40), or have two or three members of the family work. And because of the deterioration in mass transit, many workers spend even more (unpaid) time just getting to and from work.
Such conditions produce more illness–mental and physical–leading to still more lost wages, and creates the kind of back-breaking schedule responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and millions of injuries in industrial “accidents.”
Is it any wonder that workers react so enthusiastically whenever the demand is put forward for shorter hours at no loss in pay–and with a big wage boost? As it stands now, millions of workers are forced to labor a lot longer than 40 hours on one job–at straight time–because they are either not covered by union contracts or by legislation. For them, a shorter work-week with a pay boost would be of still greater benefit. But even for the millions who work “only” 40 hours, cutting down to 30 hours at 40 hours pay would be of enormous benefit, also. “Thirty for Forty” would:
• Put tremendous pressures on the bosses to create up to 25% more jobs, especially in industries that operate around the clock where four 6-hour shifts would be needed to replace three 8-hour shifts. This would put a brake on unemployment, alleviating the results of increasing joblessness;
• Unite the working class like never before, since ALL workers stand to gain from “30 for 40”;
• Be a big blow to racist super-exploitation of black, Latin and other workers who would be in a better position to fight their double rate of unemployment. “Thirty for forty” would be a lever to use in uniting with white workers in a common struggle against the same enemy–U.S. bosses;
• Push forward real rank-and-file leaders to replace the current crop of sellouts; in a militant struggle for such a just demand, the necessary all-out fight exposes the piecards even more, and creates the need for building leadership from the ranks;
• Give a tremendous impetus to organizing the unorganized. With only 25% of America’s workers in unions now, many of the other 75% would flock to rank-and-file-led unions fighting for “30 for 40”;
• Create more free time for workers and their families, some of which would give more time to think how to organize for even greater advances.
There are other benefits to be gained from such a fight, some of which will be dealt with later. However, even if bosses are forced to reduce working hours, this will not solve all these problems workers have. The bosses will aim to speed up workers even more; will choose to force overtime rather than hire the unemployed; and will look to reverse the gain itself, crying “poverty” and “I’ll have to go out of business and then you’ll all be out of work.”
These questions are discussed in the final section. For now, let us see how workers have fought for shorter hours in the past and then try to determine how this demand can be won today.
Eight-hour laws made by politicians will never be observed by the employers. The only eight-hour law that will ever have any binding force. . . will be made and enforced by workingmen. (The Carpenter, Jan. 20, 1891)
When those Philadelphia carpenters struck for shorter hours in 1791, it marked the beginning of the struggle to limit the work-day to 12 hours. By 1825, the fight turned into one for the ten-hour day. By the Civil War, workers had begun to achieve this goal, especially through the first unions organized in the 1830’s and 1840’s. However, the post-war depression virtually destroyed most unions and hundreds of thousands, even millions, were still working 10 to 12 hours daily, all six and seven days a week. Capital was organizing at every turn to smash workers’ strikes, trying to strangle the infant trade unions in the cradle.
It was amid such violent struggle that delegates came together in Baltimore in 1866 to form the first nation-wide labor federation in U.S. history– the National Labor Union (NLU). The single issue that brought representatives of most existing trade unions together was the need to fight for an eight-hour day. “Whether you work by the piece or work by the day, decreasing the hours increases the pay,” chanted the delegates. Vowing to make this their main goal, they resolved:
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.
But a year later at their next convention, after laws were passed, and ignored in many states, the NLU decided that legislation by rich men’s governments would never be enforced on behalf of working people; the laws were “frauds on the laboring classes.” It was decided to organize through unions to win contracts for the eight-hour day.
Although the NLU died when its leaders got caught up in “currency reform” as the cure-all for the working class, its member unions launched strikes to gain the eight-hour day. The biggest walkout in the U.S. up to that time occurred in New York City in 1872 when 100,000 building trades workers went out for three months in a bitter battle. The eight-hour day was won by seven trades, but only the stone-cutters were able to hold on to it, the rest losing it in the depression of the 1870’s. However, the emphasis had shifted. Where earlier in the century the bosses were fighting against the 10-hour day, now they were fighting to keep it, against labor’s demand for eight.
The workers were struggling to recover from the misery of the depression that began in 1873. One gigantic reaction was the 1877 national railroad strike, which answered a 10% wage cut with a shutdown of all rail freight traffic for ten days, coast to coast and saw workers take over the city of Pittsburgh and run it for four days. By 1882 the workers were marching again for the eight-hour day. In New York City’s first Labor Day, 30,000 bricklayers, furriers, cigarmakers, seamstresses and others proclaimed, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” Every Labor Day of the early 1880’s had as its main slogan, “Eight Hours to Constitute a Day’s Work.”
In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (later to become known as the American Federation of Labor–AFL) passed a historic resolution:
Resolved. . . that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1386 and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.
The “enforcement” of this resolution was to take place by a nation-wide strike. It was out of this resolution that the May 1st international working-man’s May Day holiday was born, to be adopted later by workers all over the world. It was here in the U.S. that May Day began, and the issue was the fight for the eight-hour day.
As May 1, 1886 approached, the “Eight-hour Madness” gripped workers throughout the land. The bosses’ press labeled the demand “Communism, lurid and rampant” which would encourage “loafing, gambling, rioting, debauchery and drunkenness.” The workers’ answer was to smoke “Eight hour tobacco” (made in shops on an eight-hour day); buy “Eight-hour shoes (manufactured in factories on the eight-hour day); and sing the “Eight-hour Song”:
We mean to make things over;
we’re tired of toil for naught
But bare enough to live on;
never an hour for thought.
We want to feel the sunshine;
we want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure that God has willed it,
and we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces
from shipyard, shop and mill:
Eight hours for work, eight hours
for rest, eight hours for what we will!
And “summon” they did. In the weeks approaching May 1, 1886 the American working class had ^aught “eight-hour fever.” In Chicago, the Central ’Labor Union organized a rally of 25,000 from 25 unions and formed the Eight-Hour Association. In New York, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Boston, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Washington and nearly every industrial city in the country, the skilled and unskilled, men and women, black and white, native-born and immigrant, were joining the fight for the eight-hour day. By mid-April over a quarter of a million were directly involved, and before May 1 over 30,000 had won either eight or nine hours without a strike.
That fateful day arrived: 350,000 workers in over 11,000 counties in every industrial center in the country laid down their tools in the biggest strike the country had ever seen. Nearly 200,000 gained the eight-hour day. In Chicago, the center of the movement, 45,000 won it without a strike while 40,000 went out, paralyzing the city. Tens of thousands joined unions prior to, and on that day, aiming for the goal of an eight-hour day.
The ruling class was petrified. Never had workers been so organized, so united, so militant on such a national scale. Over 600,000 new members had joined the Knights of Labor the months before May 1. Chicago’s bosses went crazy. Cops and Pinker-tons swooped down on knots of striking workers all over the city. At the factory gates of McCormick Harvester, during a strike meeting on May 3, cops swung their clubs and then fired into the strikers, killing six workers and wounding many more.
August Spies, a member of the Central Labor Union organizing the strikes, was speaking at that meeting. He and other militants–anarchists, socialists, and other trade unionists–organized a protest meeting for the next day at Haymarket Square. About 3,000 attended the peaceful meeting, later attested to even by the mayor. Just as it was adjourning, police moved in ordering people to disperse. Suddenly a bomb was thrown and exploded, killing one cop. The police opened fire. By the day’s end, seven cops and four workers lay dead. While it was never established who threw the bomb, it was widely believed to be a police agent- provocateur, trying to create the justification to break up the eight-hour movement.
At once, Chicago labor leaders were rounded up and jailed. Eight later were framed and convicted of murder after a 63-day trial, despite the fact that some of them were not even in Chicago at the time, much less near Haymarket Square. Seven were sentenced to death. Four were eventually hung– Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel. The innocence of all eight was later affirmed and the three still alive (one had “committed suicide” in his cell) were released in 1883.
On the gallows, Spies had cried, “There will be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”
And so it was. A world-wide movement for the eight-hour day grew from the Haymarket Massacre and its aftermath. Spies had been prophetic when he told the court before sentencing:
If you think by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement. . . the movement from which the down-trodden millions, the millions who toil in want and misery, expect salvation–if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there and there, behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. ...
This prediction was fulfilled. Class war raged even more sharply as the robber barons of that era set out to reverse any gains won by workers. It had taken virtually the first 100 years to reduce the work-week to ten hours. (The average week ran to 57.3 hours in six days.) But many still worked 12 hours.
At the 1888 AFL convention the resolve was again made to “enforce” eight hours by May 1, 1890. The demand was put forward as one around which “all can unite.” It became an important tool for organizing workers into unions. And, where this was not possible, Eight-Hour Leagues were formed to organize huge rallies that pressed for the eight-hour day: 971 such rallies took place during 1889 in large and small cities throughout the country.
This huge outpouring of workers around a single issue was not lost on militant workers around the world. The leaders of many Socialist movements met on July 14, 1889 in Paris to found the Second International–a world-wide working-class revolutionary organization. Taking note of the May 1, 1890 date planned by the AFL, the Paris Congress resolved, “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.. . the day is accepted for the international demonstration.
In the U.S., AFL head Gompers moved to limit the strike to one union–the carpenters. So they struck, supported by the rest of the labor movement, and the eight-hour day was won for 46,000 in 137 cities; 30,000 won nine hours. Hundreds of thousands of other workers won reductions on that day also.
At the same time on May 1, 1890, May Day was born. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated throughout the world–Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Cuba, Denmark, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Italy, Peru, Switzerland and the U.S. It was the greatest international demonstration of workers up to that time. In London, alone, 250,000 marched; one of the organizers was the daughter of Karl Marx, a founder of Scientific Socialism. Marx had died before that, but his close co-worker, Frederick Engels, wrote:
...the proletariat of Europe and America is holding a review of its forces; it is mobilized for the first time as One army, under One flag, fighting for One immediate aim: an eight-hour working day .. . The specitacle we are now witnessing will make the capitalists and landowners of all lands realize that today the proletarians are, in very truth, united.
The eight-hour day had become the single, all-embracing rallying cry of workers around the world. Thus, May Day became the symbol of the common class interests of the international proletariat–“Labor’s Emancipation Day, said the New York World on May 2, 1890.
Just how much the shorter work-day issue was a unifying force was dramatically revealed in New Orleans in 1892. On Oct. 24, three unions–the Teamsters, Scalesmen and Packers, the so-called Triple Alliance–went out on strike for a ten-hour day, overtime pay and the preferential union shop. Arrayed against the workers were the merchants; the four railroads entering the city; the cotton, sugar and rice exchanges; the clearing house and the mechanics’ and dealers’ exchange. But the Triple Alliance had the backing of the Working-men’s Amalgamated Council, representing, among others, every AFL union in New Orleans.
The bosses felt they had one ace in the hole in this Deep South city–the Teamsters were an overwhelmingly black union while the other two in the Alliance were mostly white. Taken aback that the “white” locals would even go on strike together with the Teamsters, the Board of Grade “offered” to sign an agreement with the Scalesmen and Packers but not with the “n–#8211;rs.” Then the press began featuring terror stories about “mobs of brutal Negro strikers,” and headlines like “Negroes Attack White Man.”
Not only did the Alliance remain solid amid this lynch atmosphere, but the Scalesmen and Packers declared they would never return to work unless the bosses signed with the entire Alliance, including the Teamsters. To top that, the rank and file of all the AFL unions began pushing for a general strike to back the Alliance. The New Orleans Times-Democrat labeled the white trade unionists (the AFL skilled crafts) “lunatics” for even considering a city-wide general strike to support black, unskilled workers.
But, unfortunately for the bosses, the “lunatics” went out on their threatened general strike on Nov. 8. And the 49 unions that walked out added demands of their own, including ones for shorter hours and higher wages, as well as union recognition. “Tie the town up,” cried the 25,000 striking workers And, indeed, that is precisely what happened–the first general strike in the history of the South.
For three days New Orleans stood still. Virtually all business stopped. Street cars didn’t run; gas, light and power were cut off. The city was in total darkness. Again the press resorted to racism to split the workers–and again to no avail. The strikers became even more united. Troops were called but they, too, failed in trying to provoke the workers. The bosses were forced to sit down with black and white trade unionists, skilled and unskilled– an unheard of development up to that time.
The Triple Alliance, including the Teamsters, won the ten-hour day, overtime pay and adjusted wage schedules. And many of the other 49 unions won shorter hours and higher wages, also. Union membership increased and new unions were formed. The walkout was a landmark for AFL unions, who, for the most part, by organizing skilled workers only, excluded black workers from their struggles. But the Triple Alliance and the general strike in New Orleans showed it could be done, and that, when it was done, it won!
The “Panic of 1893”–another periodic depression built into capitalism–was used to wipe out many advances already gained by workers. Especially was this true in the West, in the mining fields of the Rockies, where possibly the most militant union in American labor history–the Western Federation of Miners led by Big Bill Haywood–had won an eight-hour day for most of its members. The mining moguls owning the gold fields of Cripple Creek, Colorado, saw their opportunity to wipe it out and– amid severe unemployment–lengthened the working day to ten hours. So, in February 1894, the WFM went out on strike. They fought the bosses, their strike-breakers, 1,300 armed deputies and the entire state militia–and won. After a five-month strike, the miners returned to work in June with the eight-hour day preserved. But this was just a prelude to perhaps the bloodiest extended battle ever fought by U.S. workers.
Over the next decade the WFM succeeded in getting eight-hour laws voted for, and passed by referendum, throughout Colorado. And just as regularly, the bosses–in control of the army and the courts–succeeded in nullifying these laws. Throughout Hollywood’s “gay nineties,” federal and state troops were sent in against the miners in the bloody strikes of Coeur d’Alene in 1892, of Leadville in 1896, at Salt Lake City and Coeur d’Alene again in 1899, at Telluride in 1901. Thousands of miners were put into barbed-wire concentration camps, held for months without charge or trial. Others were herded into freight cars and deported out of Colorado at bayonet point.
These were miners who, through this violence and terror, had been forced back onto an 84-hour week–12 hours a day, seven days a week–for $1.80 to $3.00 a day! Haywood told the miners in 1903 that, “Now that we have to fight for the eight-hour day (since the laws had failed), it will be one strike after another.” They vowed to end the condition where, “The fires that smelt the ores, like the fires of hell, never cool. There are no rest days, no Sundays, no holidays.
The barbarous gold barons do not find the gold, they do not mine the gold, they do not mill the gold, but by some weird alchemy all the gold belongs to them.
That kind of talk scared the owners. The WFM had come out for support of the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs in 1902. Debs was receiving a tremendous reception in the mining camps as he called for “the collective ownership and control of industry ... in the interest of all the people.”
But the miners never backed off in the great 8-hour strikes in Colorado. They fought the “bullpens,” the deportations, shot it out toe to toe with the 30,000 vigilantes, federal troops and armed deputies. This was the real “wild West” the movies never touch. They plastered whole communities with handbills, during the night, under the very guns of thousands of troops. When deported, they returned home on the rods of the very freight trains on which they had been taken out. In this great strike for the eight-hour day, which lasted 15 months throughout the state of Colorado in 1903-1904, 42 men were killed, 112 wounded, 1,345 imprisoned in bullpens or military concentration camps and 773 deported from the state.
Finally, on Dec. 1, 1904, the mine and smelter owners of the Telluride district surrendered. The miners there, and many in Cripple Creek and other areas throughout the state, won a $3 minimum for an eight-hour day. The mining barons had set out to destroy the Western Federation of Miners along with the eight-hour day. The result was destruction of the 84-hour week and a leap in the union’s membership from 25,000 in 1901 to 40,000 in 1905.
But perhaps the most significant result of this whole class struggle was the increasing belief of tens of thousands of workers that reliance on workers’ strength, not on laws or politicians, was the way to fight–and that the goal was more than just shorter hours but the complete destruction of the capitalist class so no one could take back the gains won in violent battle.
Nowhere was this proven more clearly than in the same state ten years later, in the battle of Colorado’s coal miners against the 14-hour day. Their strike for the shorter work-week, union recognition and payment in money (not scrip), stretched for 15 months, from Sept. 1913 to Dec. 1914. It involved pitched gun battles between the miners and the National Guard and ended in the bloody Ludlow Massacre.
Over 300,000 acres of mountains laden with the richest veins of coal were owned by the Colorado Fuel and Oil Co. (CF&O) and mined by 30,000 workers. CF&O was controlled by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the multibillionaire lizard whose loins eventually spawned Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York’s grasping, profit-hungry governor.
The miners lived under the worst conditions. Their homes were tent-hovels which offered no protection from either heat or cold. Garbage, human excrement and rats ran through mud furrows substituting as “streets.”
Doctors were non-existent. Typhoid, diphtheria, scarlet fever and other diseases were as normal as sunrise, which meant a 14-hour work span, seven days a week, mining coal in crumbling unsafe mines.
If Hitler learned anything about concentration camps, he learned it from Rockefeller’s tight control over the miners’ lives. Mind as well as body was regulated to such a degree that nothing could be heard or seen without the consent of Rockefeller’s private police.
The miners were paid in scrip, private Rockefeller money, which bought consumer goods in Rockefeller-owned stores at exorbitant prices. Workers who complained about their inhuman conditions were fired or brutally beaten. Women and children also worked in the mines, and received the same treatment.
Governors, mayors, state legislators and other political jackals jumped to Rockefeller’s command. He used every device his industrial empire could muster to keep the Colorado coal miners in line. But the depth of that very oppression forced the miners to fight back, and in Sept. 1913 they struck.
The United Mine Workers’ (UMW) leadership had been beseeching Rockefeller for a number of years to sit down across the bargaining table and amicably settle the question of union recognition. The miners, however, understood their oppression could not be solved by “collective bargaining,” and armed themselves, taking matters into their own hands.
Rockefeller imported scabs. Workers’ guns drove the scabs back. The courage of the miners was an inspiration to the rest of the country’s miners. However, the spineless UMW leadership backed off and left the rank and file to carry on the fight by themselves.
The struggle reached its peak in Ludlow, the largest mining town. For 14 days, miners fought with National Guardsmen, vigilantes and scabs. For most of that time the miners controlled the state of Colorado. Nothing moved without their consent. Rockefeller used every sort of scum to defeat them. Finally, when all else failed, he had the town of Ludlow set afire. Yet, although scores of men, women and children were burned to death in the “Ludlow Massacre,” the miners refused to give up, so Rockefeller ordered President Wilson to send in the Army. After 15 months of bloody, brutal battle, the Colorado miners’ strike was defeated.
The miners’ struggle helped unify workers throughout the country as never before over the question of a shorter work-week. When, in 1916, railroad workers threatened a general strike if their demand for an eight-hour day was not granted, the rulers quickly gave in. At that time they were immersed in the profit-making of World War I, which the U.S. was to enter the following year. But, when the war ended, they returned to their “never-give-an-inch” tactic.
In 1919, 365,000 steel workers, laboring 12 hours a day, six and seven days a week in the mills of Morgan, Rockefeller and Carnegie, went on an historic strike for union recognition. Led by William Z. Foster–who, two years later, helped found the first communist party in the U.S.–the steel workers put up a valiant fight, a struggle which needs a book to describe. After 3-1/2 months, the workers were forced back, betrayed by the AFL sellout leadership, facing armed troops in all the big steel centers. But the strike scared the wits out of the ruling class, heralding as it did the future unionization on an industrial basis of the mass, trustified industries. It was one of the reasons the bosses launched their Palmer Raids to terrorize working-class leaders from coast to coast.
The 1920’s saw increasing battles for the shorter work-week coupled with union recognition. These two demands tell the biggest part of the story of nearly 200 years of working-class struggle in the U.S. It was in this decade that the fight began for the five-day week. Although eight-hour work-days had been won by many, most were still working a six-day, 48-hour week. Henry Ford tried to appear as the workers’ “savior” by instituting a five-day week in 1926. But, as he later admitted, his plan was to “pay six days’ pay for six days’ work done in five days”–speed-up Ford style.
One of the most fiery battles of the “golden twenties” was the strike of 10,000 fur workers in New York City for the five-day, 40-hour week, plus a 25% wage boost. The fur union had been controlled by out-and-out gangsters nearly from its inception. However, in 1925 the rank and file managed to elect their own leaders overwhelmingly, led by Ben Gold. On March 8, 1926 the workers shut down the fur market. The first day of that walkout is described by Philip Foner in his Fur and Leather Workers Union:
The police lunged into the mass of workers and beat down hundreds of strikers, men and women. The workers fought back. Frail girls leaped up fearlessly, and returned blows squarely in the policemen’s faces. As the line of strikers continued to forge ahead, police in patrol cars drove with breakneck speed into large bars of workers on the sidewalk. Still the mass of strikers did not budge. In spite of every new assault by mounted police and motorized squads, the line grew. In the face of this immovable force the police were powerless. Finally the great mass of pickets broke through completely and marched triumphantly to the strike halls. Besides the hundreds of strikers beaten up in that single demonstration, 125 were arrested.
Such scenes were repeated day after day. But the workers held firm behind their militant leadership. Thousands of arrests, beatings and jailings did not stop them. And the five-day, 40-hour week was won, with a 10% wage increase, one of the first union-contracted 40-hour weeks in U.S. labor history. The 1926 fur workers’ strike was a warm-up for the decade to come.
In 1929 came the Great Depression. By 1932, with factories, banks, mines and mills closing daily, over 17 million were unemployed, a third of the work-force. The AFL, with its lily-white, narrow craft set-up and business union “leaders” was no match for the organizing crying to be done of millions of unskilled black and white workers. Out of communist-led hunger and unemployment marches, out of hundreds of thousands of evictions in which workers’ furniture was put back in their houses, out of starvation and beatings and tear gassing daily by cops and soldiers–out of all this grew the greatest unity and militance ever witnessed among U.S. workers.
Out of this biggest attack on working and living conditions grew the organization of the mass production industries–auto, steel, rubber, electrical, glass–as well as transport, and other monopolized industries. The first reaction to immediate hunger and unemployment had been, “Don’t starve; Fight!” This advanced to the next logical step: “Get wise; Organize!” And so the CIO was born.
The organization of 5,000,000 workers into industrial unions in the 1930’s was fought tooth and nail by the giants of U.S. monopoly capitalism–General Motors, Ford and Chrysler; U.S. Steel and Bethlehem Steel; General Electric and Westinghouse; and on and on. But with all their money and armies and guns they couldn’t stem the tide of a militant, united working-class movement in which communists played a major, probably decisive role.
Two events stand out among most all others in that decade. One was the San Francisco General Strike in 1934; the other the great Flint sit-down against GM in 1936-37.
In San Francisco the longshoremen had walked out for a six-hour day and 30-hour week, for higher wages and for a union-controlled hiring hall. They were joined by the maritime workers. The ship owners were raging. They ordered cops and vigilantes to “open the port.” The workers and cops fought pitched battles. Two dock strikers were murdered by the cops. Soon every local union in the city was voting to go out on a general strike to back the dockers, defying the reactionary leadership of the AFL that was trying to sabotage the walkout.
While the bosses were decrying the “red plot” that was about to “take over the city,” the workers refused to be intimidated by anti-communism. With the exception of the typographical and powerhouse workers, every union in the city walked out on the morning of July 16. In his book, The Big Strike, Mike Quin wrote:
The paralysis was effective beyond all expectation. To all intents and purposes industry was at a complete standstill. The great factories were empty and deserted. No streetcars were running. Virtually all stores were closed. The giant apparatus of commerce was a lifeless, helpless bulk.
Labor had withdrawn its head. The workers had drained out of the shops and plants like life-blood, leaving only a silent framework embodying millions of dollars worth of invested capital. In the absence of labor, the great machinery boomed as so much idle junk. . .
Everything was there, all intact as the workers had left it–instruments, equipment, tools, machinery, raw materials and the buildings themselves. When the men walked out they took only what belonged to them–their labor. And when they took that they might as well have taken everything, because all the elaborate apparatus they left behind was worthless and meaningless without their hand. The machinery was a mere extension of labor, created by and dependent upon labor.
Labor held the life-blood and energy. The owners remained in possession of the corpse.
Highways leading into the city bristled with picket lines. Nothing moved except by permission of the strike committee. Labor was in control.
The general strike lasted for four days. More than 3,000 additional troops were dispatched. More vigilante-deputies were sworn in. Legionnaires wrecked union halls and communist headquarters. But when the final results were in, the longshoremen had won their 30-hour week, a raise in pay and a hiring hall. It was the biggest union victory since the depression had begun.
Two and a half years later, after a rank-and-file organizing drive, the auto workers in GM’s Fisher Body plants in Flint, Mich, sat down and occupied the plants on the inside. The world-wide empire of the largest manufacturing corporation in the world came to a grinding halt. Demanding union recognition, higher wages, shorter hours and a halt to speed-up, on the back-breaking assembly lines, the militant workers had the entire country waiting on their every move–the bosses and then-press and troops threatening them at every turn, and U.S. workers backing them all the way.
After 44 days and nights inside GM’s plants, after capturing the Chevy plant #4, largest in the world, and with the physical support of thousands of workers in Flint and nearby Michigan, Indiana and Ohio cities, the Flint sit-downers defeated the National Guard, the local cops, the courts, injunctions, attempts to starve and freeze them out, and forced GM to surrender. The fledgling UAW (United Auto Workers) was recognized as the workers sole bargaining agent, elected by the workers. Immediate wage increases were won and soon afterwards the 40-hour week was established.
The Flint sit-down sparked the organization of the CIO which, in turn, helped establish the eight-hour day on a five-day week basis by 1940 for tens of millions of American workers. It was not “given” to workers by legislation (although laws were passed) as the bosses’ history books would have us believe. It was fought for on picket lines and with guns in every corner of the country.
Until this day, except for some industries like construction, sections of the garment industry, and others, there has been no advance beyond the 40-hour week. And even these advances have been chipped away. The West Coast longshoremen’s “30-hour week” was turned into a 45-hour week with the agreement to work nine hours a day, three at overtime rates–while many workers walk the streets unemployed. The 35-hour week in construction is accompanied by probably the highest unemployment rate of any industry in the country. And, for many garment workers, the “35-hour week” runs for less than half the weeks in the year in an industry of constant seasonal layoffs.
But more than just a “chipping away” has befallen the unions as a whole, especially the former CIO unions. What the ruling class was unable to destroy in the Thirties, at birth, it has accomplished over the past 25 years through a’ combination of anti-communism, racism, bribery and terror, so that the rank-and-file-founded and -led CIO industrial unions of the Thirties are but a shell of their former selves, unrecognizable to workers who remember them and disbelieved by young workers of today. The original advance of the CIO has been turned around into a gigantic sellout, out of which the bosses have reaped literally tens of billions in profits over the past quarter century.
The key to reversing this set-back and surpassing even those past gains depends on two factors: workers’ unity and workers’ organization. The organization can be created through rank-and-file caucuses. (See PLP Program on Caucuses and Workers’ Power in Trade Unions.) The unity can come around an issue that fulfills the demands of ALL workers. Such an issue is “30 for 40”–or any other variant of a shorter work-week without a loss in pay–plus a big wage boost.
Earlier we described why we and many other workers think a shorter work-week is needed. Even then, many arguments will be advanced against it, such as:
• “The bosses will never give it.” True–the bosses never “gave” us anything. Whatever workers ever got from them was wrenched through militant struggle. No doubt the bosses will put up a terrific fight against workers’ demands for “30 for 40”; but if that were to become the reason not to struggle for it, we would still be working 12 and 14 hours a day.
• “No one else has it.” While this is not true (there are numbers of workers–New York City electricians, for one–who have it, or at least have 35-hour work-weeks), even though the overwhelming majority don’t have it, this fact has always been true for every new advance by the workers; but that has never stopped workers from fighting for them. Whatever the working class has needed, it has fought for.
• “It won’t create new jobs or an easier life because people will just work longer on their second jobs.” Firstly, a shorter work-week with no loss in pay will make life easier for those who work only one job. People work two jobs because their main job doesn’t pay enough money. That’s why we couple the demand for shorter hours with the demand for a big wage boost. Moreover, one of the main reasons workers don’t receive enough on their main jobs is because they don’t work a full 12 months on insecure jobs. A shorter work-week would put pressure on the bosses to hire more workers, making for more job security, less time lost and less wages lost that must be made up on a second job.
• “We won’t know what to do with ourselves with all this extra leisure time.” That’s what they told workers on a 12-hour day fighting for ten hours. Finding what to do with an extra eight or ten hours a week should only be our biggest problem.
• “Wages are a more important demand to fight for (or pensions, or fringe benefits, etc.).” But we say we should fight for both. The fact is that because the fight for a shorter work-week historically has been such a unifying demand for the whole working class, it has strengthened workers in the struggle for alt other demands. It has spurred workers to organize unions, the biggest single road to higher wages and anything else workers need.
• “There will be no new jobs; the bosses will ’just speed us up even more. True, if the bosses are forced to cut the work-week with no loss in pay, and grant higher wages, they will fight like hell against hiring more workers. But certainly in round-the-clock industries, tremendous pressure will be created for four 6-hour shifts instead of three 8-hour shifts. And even in areas that don’t run seven days a week, the bosses will not find it easy to simply automatically speed up production to a point where the same group of workers can do eight hours work in six. While they will try, gaining shorter hours puts the workers more on the offensive and the bosses on the defensive. And the unity gained in winning a shorter work-week can be put to good use fighting speed-up. Besides, the bosses try to speed us up no matter how many hours we work. Staying on an eight-hour day won’t prevent speed-up, for no matter how good bosses have it, the nature of capitalism impels them to fight for still more. We, as workers, can do no less.
• “They won’t hire more workers; they’ll just force us to work more overtime.” Again, that’s another fight to be coupled with the fight for shorter hours, just like the fight against speed-up. But, again, we’re in a much better position to fight against anything the bosses try to do to us from the vantage point of a shorter, rather than a longer, work-day, again putting our strengthened unity to good use in the fight against forced overtime. The results of a victory in the campaign for a shorter work-week are still weighted in the direction of putting pressure on the bosses to hire more workers and reduce unemployment.
• “A shorter work-week will impel the bosses to introduce more automation, causing more–not less–unemployment.” The bosses will always look for ways to cut jobs, no matter how long the workday is. The sole determinant of whether or not they increase automation is: will it add to profits, especially by cutting jobs. In fact, one of the biggest reasons to fight for “30 for 40” is precisely because automation has cut jobs in such industries as steel, auto and mining. A shorter work-week– among other things–is an attempt by the working class to gain some of the benefits of automation and not allow the bosses to reap all the reward. Only under socialism–where there are no bosses –will workers be able to reap the full benefits of technological advance.
• “A shorter work-week”–say the bosses– “will force us out of business and there will be less jobs, not more.” Well, we needn’t cry for them. They’ve done pretty well when the work-week was shortened from 12 to 10, and even better when cut from ten to eight. (The fact is, if they’re telling us that all bosses will “go out of business” if forced to grant “30 for 40,” we’d like to see nothing better than for capitalism “to go out of business.” But, unfortunately, it’s not that easy.) If the bosses “can’t afford” a shorter work-week, that’s their problem. But they use that argument as a reason not to grant any demand, not just one for shorter hours.
The fact is, all their crocodile tears to the contrary, the bosses CAN well afford to grant a shorter work-week plus a big boost in pay. For instance, in the auto industry, Commerce Dept. figures (which probably understate things) show that in 1967 the total payroll was $6 billion; the total “value added” in manufacturing (the amount of value created by the workers’ labor) was $14 billion. If the workers won “30 for 40” and 25% more jobs were put on, increasing the payroll to $7-1/2 billion, the “poor” GM, Ford and Chrysler bosses would be left with “only” $6-1/2 billion gross profit instead of $8 billion. And we should cry to them?
Actually, in that same year the total payroll for all manufacturing for 19 million workers (according to the bosses’ figures) was $132 billion. The total “value added” by these workers’ labor came to $262 billion, another $130 billion over and above what they got in wages. If hours were cut to 30 from 40 at the same rate of pay (assuming the work-week average at 40 among those workers in 1967), and the work-force went up 25%, the payroll would rise to $175 billion, still leaving $85 billion for the bosses to “squeeze by” on. If they can’t live on that, eventually we’ll take all the value we add as workers in production and show them how it’s done!
As usual, all the bosses’ arguments against workers getting more or anything fall flat. No doubt, there are others they will dream up–this list, by no means, exhausts the fairy tales in the Bosses’ public relations offices. But it’s time to turn to a program for action on “30 for 40.”
As with any other demand, workers must organize and unite to win anything. The fight for a shorter work-week with a big pay boost can start on many levels, depending on the point a particular group of workers are at. As in the past, workers already organized into trade unions usually take the lead. Once the campaign is underway, unorganized workers and drawn into–or themselves start organizing –unions. Workers can:
• Start a petition in their shop, local and industry among unionized and non-unionized workers to galvanize sentiment around “30 for 40”;
• Raise the demand as the first order of business in the next contract negotiations, with the provision that the union strikes until “30 for 40” is won;
• Spread the demand to other locals and workers in the same union and other unions in the area;
• Organize unorganized workers in their industry into the union on the basis of fighting for shorter hours and therefore for more jobs, against unemployment;
• Call mass rallies and marches in the plant area and in the city where the local is situated, to bring the message to as many workers as possible;
• Call work-actions on the job during which workers can discuss how to fight for “30for 40”;
• Organize “Six-Hour Leagues” among working-class people, families, etc. in non-union areas and in communities, to draw on the full strength of the Eight-Hour Leagues–could spread the issue far beyond the 20 million workers in unions;
• Call for one-day strikes in a local or area on behalf of “30 for 40,” to show the bosses we mean business;
• Aim for a one-day regional and/or national strike (like May 1st, 1886) with the possibility of continuing it until “30 for 40” is won;
• Organize industry-wide or city-wide general strikes to win “30 for 40”;
• Organize referendum campaigns to publicize and unify sentiment around “30for 40,” knowing all the time that the only thing that will enforce a shorter work-week will be workers’ power at the point of production;
• Organize support for any group of workers out on strike for “30 for 40”;
• Organize rank-and-file caucuses around the issue, developing new leaders to replace any old ones who refuse to fight for this demand.
• Link up with workers in Canada, Puerto Rico. Latin America and around the world fighting for the same demand. The fight for the shorter work-week knows no boundaries. We cannot allow the bosses to use workers of one country against those in another as a way to forestall the fight for the shorter workweek, on the grounds that jobs will go to those workers “willing” to work the longest and the cheapest. As in the past, it will become an international struggle against an international ruling class. What better way to celebrate May Day than in an international strike of the world’s workers for the demand of a six-hour day!
This list is by no means complete. In the course of fighting for shorter hours, workers will develop many new forms and ideas and slogans to win. But we should not get side-tracked on restricting ourselves to winning this demand solely based on a “30 for 40” formula. Some workers, depending on the industry and the shift they already work, will call for “four days work for five days pay.” Others, already working 35 hours now–seven hours a day –might call for “28 for 35.” And still others might demand “32 for 40”–four 8-hour days instead of five.
But any way you slice it, if it comes out to a big dent in the present work-week plus a big pay boost, it will be part of a larger, unified movement for shorter hours and continue the fight of U.S. workers down through the years. (The main idea to stay away from is the bosses’ new gimmick: four 10-hour days, without overtime pay, instead of five 8-hour days–the same 40 hours but with a three-day weekend. No doubt we’d need it after being in a state of collapse from four 10-hour days. Such a proposal doesn’t put a penny more into our pockets nor create one new job, and probably would help to eliminate jobs.)
For our part in the Progressive Labor Party, we will attempt to organize on every level of working-class struggle for the historic demand of the shorter work-week. We will help in organizing rank-and file caucuses wherever we work and in whatever union we are members of, to give leadership to, and unite, workers around this issue, and to throw out the misleaders who would prevent us from gaining a decent life.
We in PLP, while seeing this demand as a tremendously unifying one for the entire working class, will always try to point out that it will not solve the problems we face as workers, but only alleviate them and encourage us to fight even harder against the bosses to eliminate them altogether. Since it is capitalism and its drive for profits off the backs of workers that is the CAUSE of all our problems –unemployment, racism, job insecurity, lousy medical care, slum housing, prison-like schools, speed-up, and all the rest–the only way to really end all these problems is to get rid of the system that spawns them. That means overthrowing the bosses’ government–their state power–and installing a workers’ government. Replace the dictatorship of the bosses with a dictatorship of the working class–that’s the only way we’ll ever prevent our hard-won gains and quest for a decent life from being taken away. That’s why workers need– and will support–a revolutionary communist party.
We support the demand for a shorter work-week because it will make life a little better for ourselves as workers, and because it will unify us for the further battles ahead. But once we win this demand, we know the bosses will always try to take it out of our hides some other way, as they always do. With a shorter work-week, it might be a little harder for them, but that means they will fight harder against it, and offer all sorts of sweet-sounding things to divert us from it.
We will learn in the course of this great struggle that capitalism will never give workers, and our allies among students and intellectuals, a decent life. And we will be better prepared to take the steps to wipe out this profit system that causes untold pain and death to the working class.
Let us “mobilize as One army, under One flag– the banner of the international working class–fighting for One immediate aim; a six-hour working day...”
Let us, in the words of August Spies, light “a spark” that will start the “flames to blaze up,” flames that the ruling class can never extinguish, in a fire that will burn the sores of capitalism, profits and bosses from the face of the earth.
American Federationist, May 1894
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Foster, Wm. Z: The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons; 1920
Haywood, Wm. D.: Bill Haywood’s Book; 1929
Labor Research Association: History of the Shorter Work-Week; 1942
Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick: Communist Manifesto; Preface to 4th Edition, 1890
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