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30-Hour Week and Morals

(24 January 1949)

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 4, 24 January 1949, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

One day after our Jan. 10 publication of an editorial advocating the 30-hour week with no reduction in weekly pay, that eminent Republican daily, the N.Y. Herald-Tribune, published what reads like a direct answer to us, an editorial entitled, A Thirty-Hour Week?

Of course, the Tribune cannot refute our arguments showing the economic advantages for the workers of the 30-hour week at the same take-home pay. It concedes that as “a palliative for a depression the thirty-hour week might be successful in spreading employment. It might maintain purchasing power at a crucial period of the economic cycle.”

But keeping millions employed with no loss in purchasing power is a minor consideration for this mouth-piece of the employers. First of all, it opines, “there would be the immense administrative complications of staffing enterprises with men on such abbreviated shifts, as well as the dislocations caused by wages which did not fall proportionately with the cut in hours.”

In short, the employers would have to hire more workers and raise hourly wage rates, thereby suffering a slice in their present all-time record profits – and that’s bad, according to the Tribune. But this argument has too much of naked self-interest, so the Tribune comes out with the clincher, an argument right out of the Good Book, according to which “what profiteth a man if he gain the whole world, but loseth his soul.” The editorial finds that it would be bad for the workers to have so much idle time on their hands, because you know what the Devil finds for people to do when they’re just loafing around.

The worst thing of all, says the Tribune, “would be the social difficulties that would inevitably ensue when workers became something less than workers, and when their leisure bordered on idleness.” It might be OK if you could put the workers to work at something else, “but in the great cities as they exist today there could hardly be anything but a slow demoralization, a debasement of the old standards and a general moral laxity.”

Now the Herald-Tribune didn’t invent this argument. In fact, Karl Marx, in his monumental book Capital back in the 1860’s, traced this identical argument to the early beginnings of capitalism and showed how it was used to justify even working eight year old children until they dropped dead.

C. Curtis, in his January 1949 Fourth International magazine article, The Position of the American Working Class – 100 Years After the Communist Manifesto, traces the subsequent history of this same argument in this country. During the struggle for the 10-hour day in 1870 in Massachusetts one employer stated “that he had ‘invariably noticed that when men are kept at work until 10 p.m. they live in better health, as they keep indoors instead of sitting around doors smoking.’ (The dissolute wretches!)”

In 1902 the president of the National Association of Manufacturers opposed an 8-hour day bill “as socialistic and cbntrpverting the inalienable right of the individual to use his time as he saw fit.” And 20 years later, a succeeding president of the NAM invoked the Lord and Holy Scripture in opposition to the five-day week, for “six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work! So reads the fifth of the great commandments and for sixty centuries it has been accepted as the divinely prescribed standard of economic effort ... These constant attempts to amend the decalogue and to adapt by alterations the moral law to the appetites developed by easy and loose living constitute the outstanding peril of our unprecedented prosperity.”

In 1929 – just before the economic crash and mass unemployment – another NAM spokesman expressed satisfaction that the workers “have for the most part been so busy at their jobs that they have not had time to saturate themselves with false theories of economics, social reform and of life. They have been protected in their natural growth by the absence of excessive leisure.”

Curtis observes: “Some readers’ credulity may perhaps be strained by these citations. We can hardly blame them, but they may rest assured concerning the authenticity of these statements. As was once said in a different connection, ‘You can’t make up things like that.’” You can read them today in papers like the N.Y. Herald-Tribune.

Now there’s one little question the Tribune doesn’t answer. If the workers Will suffer “moral laxity” and “debasement” working 30 hours a week, what will they suffer if they are unemployed and without any income? The latter is evidently the alternative the “moral” capitalist press prefers.

Of course, there are some idlers and loafers who might lend weight to the Tribune’s argument. We refer to the idle rich. They flit from winter resort to summer resort and back again, steep themselves in vice and lap up all the good things of life that the labor of others creates. When you talk about these parasites, we’ll agree that their work week is too short, and we’ll make special efforts to discourage their moral laxity under socialism. But the Herald-Tribune considers socialism the most “immoral” condition of all. Which only goes to show how closely moral views relate to class interests.

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