The New Fight for the 40-Hour Work Week

Workers of the industrial age fought long and hard to secure a 40-hour work week. According to labor historian Prof. Philip Foner, "No single issue in nineteenth-century labor history produced as many songs and ballads." Here's one for you:

       We mean to make things over; we are tired of toil for naught,
       With but bare enough to live upon, and never an hour for thought;
       We want to feel the sunshine, and we want to smell the flowers,
       We are sure that God has willed it, and we mean to have eight hours.

       We're summoning our forces from the shipyard, shop, and mill,
       Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!

The Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 realized this dream on a national scale. Mission accomplished? Not exactly.

Like a cruel joke, we workers today have our own struggle for a 40-hour work week; unfortunately ours involves fighting to maintain a full 40 hours in the face of furloughs, hours cuts, "permatemps", and part-time reassignment. A 32-hour work week sounds bad when a person starts out with 40, but consider the plight of the 10% of the American populace who can't find any employment at all--for them, not even a 1-hour work week.

If employers could run companies with only managers and no workers, they would, and this nightmare becomes more and more plausible with innovation in technological advances. Even when employers owned slaves and had no obligation to pay their workforce, they still rejoiced at the introduction of the cotton gin that meant fewer laborers required to make even more money. That's been the name of the game since the beginning of capitalism.

With the abolition of slavery (excepting interns), employers may mask their contempt a little better, but they still find it obnoxious that workers always want stuff--like money, or healthcare, or dignity--that ultimately cuts into their pocketbooks. Sadly for the Boss, until SkyNet becomes self-aware and our robot overlords can fend for themselves, workers will remain a necessary evil to the people who employ them, much to the employer's chagrin.

The cunning employer recognizes this and attempts to persuade the worker into a new frame of mind. The ruling-class employer says to his working-class employee, "Now, now, I am no better than you; we are a team! We're all in this together to make the company the best it can possibly be!" Employers often embellish this lie with a call to sacrifice; "I'd like to pay you overtime, but would you really want to put the company in that position of financial burden?" or, "Think of the company before you come in here and selfishly ask for a week's paid maternity leave."

Our grandparents saw this for what it was--baloney. They recognized that if they had a job manufacturing gold-plated turds for TurdCom Incorporated, an attack on their integrity was not worth a nicer, sleeker, faster, shinier, more efficient gold-plated turd (now with less fragrance!). No amount of sacrifice on their part was going to result in a better gold-plated turd, anyway. It was the job of the Boss with the Seven-Figure-Salary (how quaint) to earn that salary with Big Money-Making Ideas about what kind of company to have and what to produce; the worker's only role was to keep production moving. If the company really needed to save money, why not let the Boss's paycheck take a hit? He (yeah, likely a dude in this scenario) could certainly afford it.

The disparity in wages made the class divide perfectly clear then, and the divide could not be clearer now when even "nonprofit" CEOs can make millions of dollars per year; workers today turn a blind eye to this, however, getting suckered into the "team" mentality only to find that they're the only ones on the "team" doing work for offensively low wages and making sacrifices of any kind. We've all had the experience of involuntarily doing the heavy lifting, and we all can agree it sucks; why are people falling for it now with such vehemence?

It can't be the recession, because our grandparents win that contest of financial hardship. Perhaps it is that the lie has become more believable, now that we live in a world where companies have more rights than humans enjoy. I'll let Jon Stewart explain:

We're all just grist in TurdCom Inc.'s mill, in other words. The company's rights override all others. As far as employers are concerned, workers should waive their right to ask for compensation that the law "guarantees" them--did you know that 75 percent of employers in California break the law by neglecting to pay their workers for overtime?--because it impedes the company's Supreme-Court-awarded right to make money, and the company's rights "win."

Too many workers buy into this and start having aspirations of working their way up through the company's ranks, riding the Gold-Plated-Turd-Train into Big-Money-Station; best way to do that they figure is to kiss ass, work extra hours for no extra pay (often just to keep up with their heavy workloads), and stay docile. Besides, complaints about working conditions are anti-"team" (i.e. "anti-company") and thus subject to punishment; too many complaints, and a worker gets furloughed, has hours cut, is reduced to part-time status, or is replaced.

This is even worse than where we started. Our GREAT-grandparents got paid 60 hours' wages for 60 hours' work; meanwhile, the workers at 75 percent of California's workplaces work 60 hours and get paid for 40. Welcome to 2010, everybody.

Hey, Boss! Got too many employees qualifying for full-time benefits? Fire them all, and hire twice as many part-timers with zero benefits to replace them. Better yet, hire a "temp" from an agency to work for you permanently--no benefits AND no promotions, guaranteed. Best of all, ship all your jobs to someplace like India where workers can live in your factory like this:

Heck! If they live there, you'll never have to pay them overtime! Problem solved!

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 12.3% of American workers (11.3% of female workers) in 2009 were represented by a labor union; I figure that makes my being a lesbian union maid especially rare. I would like to say that none of this applies to the labor union world, but I can't. Where the union worker of 1933 stared down hired guns (and occasionally lost to them) to defend the right to a fair wage, union workers today toil furiously for nothing, disillusioned by labor leaders who work hand-in-hand with management in propagating (and propagandizing) the "coalition" mentality and fearful of becoming the next ex-TurdCom former employee battling to find even part-time employment.

That being said, strong unions could win the new fight for the 40-hour work week just as they did the old one; whether or not working- (or even middle-) class Americans can (or even want to) organize themselves well enough to take on such an endeavor remains uncertain. My own union puts into practice every day that jobs not only can be protected but made better, yet the successes we achieve are possible only with formidable and vigilant effort (and a good measure of unpleasantness between managers and union personnel). Until America's workers quit empathizing with the glorified pimps running her businesses today, this codependent abuse of her working people will continue. As The Boss likes to call it, that's "teamwork."


:: louise :: said...

Thanks for this really good post. I live in Europe and the issue should be the same.

IMOOOOO said...

thanks for sharing

Luna Frad said...