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Back To the Future: Workers Fight For Better Pay AND Shorter Hours

We need a rekindled labor movement that will challenge our fixed ideas about what is work and who should do it.

This essay was originally published in Issue 10 of Jacobin.

“A hundred years ago [Benjamin] Franklin said that six hours a day was enough for anyone to work and if he was right then, two hours a day ought to be enough now.”

Lucy Parsons spoke those words in 1886, shortly before the execution of her husband, Albert. The two had been leaders in the eight-hour-day movement in Chicago, which culminated in a general strike, a rally, and the throwing of a bomb into the crowd in Haymarket Square. Albert Parsons, along with three other “anarchists,” was hanged for the crime, though he’d already left the rally by the time the bomb was thrown. Lucy kept up the fight for the rest of her life, working with anarchists, socialists, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the Communist Party for the cause.

Women like Lucy Parsons were at the heart of the struggle for the shorter work week, an integral part of the labor movement until the end of the Depression, which saw the forty-hour week enshrined in law after the defeat of Hugo Black’s thirty-hour-week bill. As Kathi Weeks writes in “‘Hours for What We Will’: Work, Family and the Movement for Shorter Hours” in Feminist Studies 35, after World War ii, the demand for shorter hours was increasingly associated with women workers, and was mostly sidelined as the forty-hour week became an institution.

“Not only wages — I am thinking here of the ‘female wage’ and the ‘family wage’ — but hours, too, were constructed historically with reference to the family,” Weeks notes. The eight-hour day and five-day week presumed that the worker was a man supported by a woman in the home, and it shaped expectations that his work was important and should be decently paid, while women’s work was not really work at all (even though, as Weeks notes, the gender division of labor was supported by some paid domestic work, done largely by women of color). The postwar labor movement focused on overtime pay and wages, leaving the women’s issue of shorter hours mostly forgotten.

But the power of the eight-hour-day movement was that it didn’t require the worker to love her job, to identify with it for life, and to take pride in it in order to organize for better conditions. The industrial union movement rose up to organize those left out of the craft unions, the so-called “unskilled” workers who recognized that they were not defined by their work and that they wanted to be liberated from it as much as possible. That, in their minds, was what made them worthy of respect, not their skill level or some intrinsic identity.

The fight for shorter hours unified workers across gender and race, class and nationality, skill and ability. It did not require the valorization of “man’s work” or the idealization of women’s natural goodness.

It is a curious fact that in today’s climate of increased work for less pay, some of the highest-profile strikes of the last year have called for more hours. As labor and its supporters cheered the strikers at Walmart and at New York’s fast-food restaurants, it was taken for granted that these part-time workers (some two-thirds of them women) should be calling for more work.

Part-time work and flexible time have been touted as solutions to the problem of “work-family balance,” which is somehow only ever considered to be a woman’s problem. In the postwar era, as Erin Hatton writes in The Temp Economy, temp agencies pushed part-time temp work as a great, flexible option for women who wanted to earn a little extra “pin money.” The temp agencies’ low pay was acceptable because the workers were presumed to be married, not “real workers” who needed a family-supporting wage. Hatton notes that by the 1980s, temp agencies were spreading their model of work, with its low wages and part-time schedules — formerly associated with women — into the rest of the economy, contributing to what Leah Vosko calls a “feminization” of work in the entire economy.

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