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Arne Swabeck

The Slogan of the Six-Hour Working-Day

(April 1931)

From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 7, 1 April 1931, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

For almost half a century the slogan of the eight-hour working day was one of the most powerful slogans of the working class throughout the world. Everywhere it became inscribed upon the proletarian banners, inspiring solidarity, and unifying the struggles. It was violently contested throughout by the capitalist enemy.

To the capitalist class the longer workday represents so much more absolute surplus value produced without any additional investments in the instruments of production owned by them. More surplus value spells more profits. This is the basic reason for their bitter opposition to any shortening of the workday. They have no intention of granting it without the most severe struggle. In fact they would rather, pressed to the wall, grant many other concessions which do not cut so directly into their profits. They know that the shorter workday is a real gain for the working class.

A “Visionary” Slogan

The eight-hour work day is not as yet established for the working class as a whole in any country. Nevertheless, would it be more “visionary” today to advance the slogan of the six-hour work day without reduction in pay than it was when the eight-hour work day slogan was first promulgated preceding the struggles of the ’80s? Not at all!

Could victory in a struggle for realizing the six-hour work day appear within the realm of practical possibility to the American workers today? The answer must be: “Yes.” One need only remember that already in 1922 the United Mine Workers convention, by rank and file pressure, adopted a program of fight for the six-hour work day. At this moment within the various conservative railroad unions there is developing a demand for the six-hour work day without reduction in pay. One may also recall the proposal of the last A.F. of L. Metal Trades Department convention for a five-hour work day without taking it seriously in the sense of expecting a struggle for its attainment.

It is, however, primarily as an offensive slogan for the coming rising labor movement that the demand for the six-hour work day without reduction in pay assumes its real importance. Secondly, it can become a powerful means of unifying the working masses, employed and unemployed alike, and set them into motion against their class enemy. Thirdly, it corresponds with the working class needs today. Particularly in the industrially highly developed United States has machine production reached such a stage that the very right to live for millions of workers becomes bound up with a drastic reduction of the present working day.

The Workers’ Resistance

Working class resistance to the capitalist offensive is appearing now in its first early manifestations. The short strike of the Lawrence textile workers has been followed by others in the New England textile region. At the Kensington, Pa. mills, several thousand workers have fought militantly against the increased speed-up. So far it is only embracing light industry, but in southern Illinois also groups of coal miners and metal workers have resisted the bosses in the face of a most terrific onslaught. Likewise in the unemployment movement there is a growth of militancy. All in all, these early signs are the harbingers of great struggles to come.

Even a possible revival of the capitalist production cycle would not seriously alter this perspective. Such a possible revival would have as its foundation more speed-up and more wage reductions. It would only make so much more inevitable the resistance of the working class.

A general reduction of the American working class standard is the avowed policy of the capitalist masters. Particularly is the unemployment crisis being taken advantage of for a drastic wage-cutting campaign. Demands for “reduced cost of production” are continually reiterated in publicity material from the big banks of the country. The extent to which actual wage cuts are being enforced may be noted from late reports of the Labor Bureau, Inc. During February wage cuts were twice as numerous as increases.

The Miners and Railroad Workers

The coal miners and the railroad workers look forward to the establishment of the six-hour day as a means of diminishing the ravages of unemployment. We remember the impudent demand of John L. Lewis, made back in 1928, to eliminate from the industry 250,000 coal miners. In reality, more than that number have already been either definitely eliminated from the industry or remain there – in the standing army of unemployed. In the railroad industry on the Class 1 Roads, between December 1929 and December 1930 a total of 248,527 workers lost their jobs according to the Bureau of Statistics of the Interstate Commerce Commission. In other industries, similarly, the machine developments are rapidly displacing labor power, adding to the ranks of the unemployed even during the favorable periods of the capitalist production cycles.

It may thus appear as if the demand for the six-hour work day without reduction in pay, in the present unemployment situation, becomes purely an objective of amelioration. While naturally this is one of its purposes, it is by no means the whole. Such a demand presented at this time and adopted by the organized section of the working class, would effectively help to prepare for the general workers’ offensive which will become so essential.

Immediate demands by their very nature are limited in scope and cannot present any solution to the working class problems. They do not by themselves reach beyond the bounds of reformism and always carry the danger of strengthening of reformist illusions. But an actual demand for the shorter work day when obtained can become a source of further strength to the working class in its advance toward the revolutionary goal. The struggle for its attainment can become a powerful lever to set mass forces into motion. Moreover, by virtue of the fact that it embraces the interest of the employed and unemployed workers alike it will similarly become a powerful instrument for unity of the masses.

The six hour work day slogan, which does not exclude other necessary slogans but supplements them, particularly possesses this quality. It further becomes the general focal point for all efforts towards the shorter work day. This is already now a life’s necessity for the American working class. The six hour day without reduction in pay should become the central slogan of the toiling masses.

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