THE HISTORIC BATTLE FOR THE SHORTER WORK WEEK
by Richard Gibson (1980) For the Michigan State Employees Association.
In the midst of the last depression, the hungry days of the 30's, American workers won three important things: (1) the right to organize, strike and bargain, (2) social security and government welfare, and (3) a shorter work week. These victories, made law by the Wagner Act, the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, resulted from rank and file rebellions throughout the country. They grew out of the logical progression from the plaintive, early-depression slogan, "Fight--Don't Starve", to the later, aggressive "Get Wise--Organize !" of the CIO.
But our victories went stale. The law which sanctioned organizing and strikes became an elaborate system of regulations designed to smash strikes. Programs of welfare became organizations of degradation and oppression rather than aid. The 40 hour week is a flimsy reality. Most families rely on two wage earners, overtime, public aid of some sort, or the underground economy for survival. Moreover, growing unemployment threatens the income of all wage workers.
So we must fight again. The parallels of the thirties and today are remarkable. Our needs are the same as our ancestors'; jobs, dignity, the right to organize and act, pay, assistance in the collapse. Another world war lurks ahead. And as the fledgling Congress of Industrial Organizations led the battles for workers justice over the violent opposition of the established AFL in the 30's, so does the rank and file movement in MSEA point the way today in the face of competing unions whose bosses are the privileged enemies of their members. Never-the-less, the 80's aren't the 30's. Fifty years changes plenty. Yet the challenges are the same: to win our demands as well as honest, representative unionism.
Let's examine a little segment of our history as workers: the struggle for a shorter work week. Today the 8 hour day is, in theory, the law of the land But only over 100 years ago a 16 hour day, 6 days a week, was common. From the textile mills to the mines, men, women and children lived, slept and died by machines. At the same time, a tiny minority built incredible fortunes. As one writer put it, " The golf links lie so close to the mill that almost any day the working children can look out and see the men at play."
The struggle for the shorter work week is the thread that ties together the history of American labor. The country's first union 1;the National Labor Union in 1866 issued its primary demand, "8 hours shall bethe normal work day." The NLU died. But the demand prompted action. In 1872 in New York City thousands of building trades workers stuck for the 40 hour week. Some won. But their g~~h-s were lost in a tide of depression. In 1877 Pittsburgh workers, led by striking rail workers, seized the city and adopted a shorter day. They were shot back to work by federal troops.
1886. Chicago. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (later the AFL) called for a national strike for the 8 hour day on May 1. Nearly one million American workers stopped work that day. The nations industrial centers were hushed. Transportation halted. Some employers yielded concessions. Others sighted their targets.
Days later at a McCormick Harvester strike, cops fired into a picket line and killed 6 strikers. A protest demonstration was hurriedly scheduled for the next evening in Chicago's Haymarket Square. As the peaceful crowd of 3,000 disbanded in a rainy eve, someone (quite possibly a police agent) tossed a bomb into the ranks of the cops. They opened fire, killing four workers on the spot. Dozens were wounded.
In the aftermath,
frenzied police raided meeting halls, union offices, and private homes. Dozens of unionists were
radicals were charged with murder.
Seven of them weren't present when the bomb was thrown. One was speaking from a platform, in full view of the police, when the explosion occurred. The eight were charged with "influencing" whoever may have done the crime.
Their trial was a sham. The jury was composed of people who openly proclaimed their belief in the defendant's guilt. An international movement demanded their freedom. The court, directed by a judge who later admitted he had "strained justice" , found the men guilty. Four were hanged in November, 1887. One was "found hung" in his cell. In 1893 the remaining 3 were pardoned by a governor who said they'd~been victims of a government conspiracy.
Since then Mayday has been recognized all over the world as a workers' holiday. But in the U. S., Mayday stands on its head, replaced by "Law Day" , a day to celebrate the unequal peace imposed on workers restrained by bosses' laws. But the last words of one of the Chicago radicals, August Spies, were prophetic;
"If you think by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement, the movement from which the millions who toil in want and misery, expect salvation, then hang us! Here you will tread on a spark, but there and there, behind you and in front of you and everywhere flames blaze up. It's a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out."
In the 1890's, as wealthy families like the Morgans and Rockefellers tightened their monopolies in industry , Spies' words stood true. The first general strike in the deep south, led by an integrated workforce in New Orleans, won a shorter work day. In this period the U.S. waged two wars. We fought Spain. And the government waged a war on the Western Federation of Miners led by Big Bill Haywood. Casualties in the hundreds. couldn't stop the miners, historically among the most militant of all workers. They won the 8 hour day near the turn of the century.
Haywood went on to help organize the International Workers of the World which challenged the AFL philosophy of "More!" by demanding, "Abolish the Wage System!" Unlike the AFL, the IWW tried to organize ALL workers, employed and unemployed, rather than just collecting dues from skilled workers. The IWW denounced the racism which kept the AFL lily white and actively sought minority leaders. The Wobblies, as IWW's became known, quickly organized almost 1/4 million workers. In Michigan, they were especially active in the Upper Peninsula. But the Wobblies were smashed by a series of government raids led by Attorney General Palmer and an ambitious young agent named J. Edgar Hoover in 1920. But the Wobbly tactic of direct action over negotiation caught on.
Steelworkers struck in 1919. Over 300,000 workers demanded the 8. hour day. They were led by William Z Foster, a communist party organizer and later a founder of the CIO. Their 3 month strike failed. They remained stuck with a 12 hour day.
In the 20's, America danced. Then the bottom fell out. The banks closed. In the early 30's the resistance of workers was tempered by fear and self-blame. Over time workers saw the problem as systematic, a collective problem requiring collective action. Under the leadership of radicals from the disciplined communist party, workers again turned to direct action. A strike wave and rebellions swept the country. Unemployed workers refused to scab and joined picket lines. Employed and jobless people worked together to stop evictions and utility shut offs with mass actions in the streets. Their unifying demand was "Less Hours, More Pay--Fight for Jobs with a Shorter Work Day!" Meanwhile, the AFL, all white, male and craft based, joined the other side. The federation openly became an arm of management.
In the mid-thirties, after years of hesitancy, two major strikes blew the depression' dust back in the employers face.
San Francisco. 1934. Dockworkers strike for a 30 hour week and control of their hiring halls. Cops kill two strikers. Workers in the whole city down tools and walk. The AFL sponsors a back to work movement. It fails. According to strike biographer Mike Quinn:
"The paralysis was effective...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 hulk.
"Labor had withdrawn it head. The workers had drained out of the shops and plants like lifeblood, leaving only a silent framework embodying millions of dollars of invested capital. In the absence of labor, the great machinery boomed as so much idle junk...Nothing moved except by permission of the strike committee. Labor was in control."
The strike lasted less than one week. Management caved in. The dockworkers won the shorter work week and began a history as one of the most militant and politically active unions in the country.
Christmas. Two years later. Workers at GM in Flint hit back at speed-up with demands for more pay, shorter hours, and union recognition. An action-based coalition of radicals and communists in the CIO's United Auto Workers union (organized to compete in auto with an AFL-backed company union) seized a Chevy plant. They fought the police and the government for 44 days. Women workers outside the plant drove off police gas attacks. The company recognized the union.
The plant "sit down" sparked similar actions everywhere. In the middle of the last depression the labor movement experienced the greatest outburst of unionism ever. CIO organizers couldn't keep up. Employees from soda fountain clerks to rubber workers seized control of their workplaces and called the union offices for advice on what to do next. Membership skyrocketed with action. There was little time for consolidation. Thus, it was the time when labor was least formally organized when the greatest gains were made.
But as WWII approached, the weaknesses of the union movement became primary. Many radical organizers abandoned the unions to fight fascism. Others obeyed the communist party's line " All out for the war effort--united front against fascism" and sought to prevent job actions during the war. A few, like the Mineworkers John L Lewis, led strikes during the war. But the divisions in the movement, skilled vs laborers, women vs men, minorities vs whites, were skillfully played by management. And some mis-leaders, finding bankrolls in their union jobs, became careerists, dropped the strategy of action , and called for peace and the status quo.
So MSEA's fight for the shorter work week, in its most ambitious sense, is an effort to pick up labors' flag again. No advance on the hours of work has been made in a major industry in nearly 50 years. Now it is time once more. Shortening the work week is desirable because it:
1) calls for a larger work force or threatens production levels . A shorter work week with no pay cut is another way of saying JOBS. So the shorter work week UNITES the entire work force as well as the jobless.
2) Limits the ability of management to impose speed-up and creates more leisure time.
3) Answers phony forced labor programs and minimum wage schemes by demanding real jobs for people at better rates of pay.
4) Puts the offensive back In our hands. Allows us to determine our strategy over the long haul. A strike is a tactic. A shorter work week is substance. Most importantly, we can learn from the lessons of the past. By truly fighting for a shorter work week we can challenge the entire labor movement, as well as keep our own honest. The battle for a shorter work week is a way for us to win.