It is a measure of the brutality of capitalism that as we approach the end of the 20th century a row can break out in government and media over whether it is desirable or necessary to work 48 hours or more a week. We are told that if there is a limit on the number of working hours and if there is legislation protecting workers from excessive hours, unsocial shifts, or continuous work without a break, this will eat into the profits of British capitalism.
Long days and shift working are unnatural and unnecessary. Some workers do of course have to work `unsocial' hours: nurses, firefighters, people who do repair work on roads or railways when others are not using them, workers in pubs or restaurants. But they should be compensated by shorter shifts, longer breaks and holidays and better facilities. Usually the opposite is true. And most shift workers do not fall into this category. Instead they work in factories or offices where the employers insist on shift work so they can get the maximum profit from the machinery they have invested in. In order that the machines do not stand `idle', workers are not allowed to stand idle either.
The fight by the capitalists to force workers to put in longer hours is as old as capitalism itself and the resistance to it has always existed. Some of the greatest battles of the working class have been those for a shorter working day.
It is not hard to see why. Capitalism was born a barbaric system. The factory system forced a huge change in the way people worked. They had to work fixed hours, six days a week, and so abandon the holiday of Saint Monday, and submit to the tyranny of machinery. Hours worked were incredibly long. It was common for women and children to work as long as 14, 16 or even 18 hours in cotton mills in 1816.
Disease and injury were commonplace and long hours greatly contributed to them. Injuries such as housemaid's knee, bricklayer's elbow, and tailor's ankle were commonplace caused by repetitious work over a long period. Even the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland fame was the result of an industrial disease: hatters suffered paranoia caused by mercury poisoning.
There was massive resistance to enforced working. As late as 1863 it was reported that the `general observance of St Monday' caused much more disruption of work than arriving late or taking long meal breaks. It took many years for the employers to enforce their discipline. But enforce it they had to. The more they could control the hours and intensity by which their workers laboured, the more they could maximise their profits.
That is why the length of the working day became so important to them, and why a struggle developed to shorten it. From the 14th to the late 17th centuries, the capitalists had set out to lengthen the working day. Karl Marx pointed out in Capital, for example, that a law introduced in the north American state of Massachusetts in the 1860s, which limited the labour of children to ten hours a day, was in fact the maximum which adult labourers would have worked 200 years earlier.
The aim was to increase the level of `absolute surplus value' produced by workers. As Marx pointed out, if workers worked eight hours, and covered the costs of their own reproduction in, say, four hours, then the remaining four hours work was straight profit for the boss. If, in addition, the bosses could get the workers to work another hour or two in the day, then the value of goods produced in that would simply go into the capitalists' pockets.
The movement developed in the 1830s and 1840s for the restriction of women and children's work to ten hours. At first the campaigning was for a reduction of their hours rather than those of men. This was on the grounds that workers knew it would hardly be worth the while of the mill owners to keep the mills open for longer hours just to employ adult men. The movement was bitterly opposed by the mill owners, who saw women and children as cheap labour. Despite this opposition, the law which was a first step towards a ten hour day was passed in 1847.
It was welcomed by the vast majority of workers and also by sections of the capitalist class, who increasingly came to see that profits could be maintained and even increased by raising the level of skills and productivity of labour rather than simply by pushing a young workforce to the physical limits of endurance.
Nonetheless, employers kept up their opposition to the shorter working day. The best known economists of the time, such as Nassau Senior, argued that it would lead to the collapse of British industry because all the profits of British capitalism were made `in the last hour' of the working day. Just as they do today, the capitalists argued against a reduction in hours on the grounds that workers really wanted to work 12 or 15 hours a day, but were restricted from doing so. Marx quotes a factory inspector of the time who retorted:
`They would much prefer working ten hours for less wages, but that they had no choice; that so many were out of employment...that if they refused to work the longer time, others would immediately get their places, so that it was a question of them agreeing to work the longer time, or of being thrown out of employment altogether. (Capital vol 1, p270).
However, by the 1850s the reality for most workers was a 58 1/2 hour week, achieved on the back of the Chartist movement but also increasingly welcomed by sections of the ruling class. When Marx made his famous inaugural address to the International Workingmen's Association in 1864, he pointed to the achievement of the ten hours movement:
`After a 30 years' struggle, fought with most admirable perseverance, the English working classes, improving a momentous split between the landlords and money-lords, succeeded in carrying the Ten Hours Bill...the middle class had predicted, and to their heart's content proved, that any legal restriction of the hours of labour must sound the death knell of British industry, which vampire-like, could but live by sucking blood, and children's blood, too... This struggle about the legal restriction of the hours of labour raged the more fiercely since, apart from frightened avarice, it told indeed upon the great contest between the blind rule of the supply and demand laws which form the political economy of the middle class, and social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class. Hence the Ten Hours Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class.'
However, despite this victory working hours were long and hard as the ten hours were spread over six and later five and a half days. So twice further in the second half of the 19th century the working class once again had to campaign for further reductions in their working hours. The Nine Hours movement of 1871-72 led to the reduction of hours in engineering and building through collective bargaining. The movement sprang up in the north east of England where Sunderland engineers won the demand after a four week strike and lit a fuse throughout the region. The establishment of a Nine Hours League in the area led to a further victory after five weeks on strike despite strong resistance from the engineering employers. In other parts of the country the success led to winning the demand without having to strike.
By the 1880s, however, the movement began to cohere around the call for an eight hour day. The demand had actually been carried in parliament in 1883 and set aside. But now it became a rallying cry of the growing number of socialists and of the great movement of the new unions which developed at the end of the decade. The London gas workers came out on strike in August 1889 for the eight hour day and the employers caved in within a few days. Workers' leaders, in particular the socialist Tom Mann, led the eight hour agitation.
At the Paris Socialist International Congress in 1889, delegates called for a day of international demonstrations May Day so that `on the given day the workers shall demand...the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours.' May Day 1890 in Hyde Park attracted an estimated 500,000 demonstrators.
Yet the workers could never be secure in their victories. The defeat of the New Unionism, and the employers' offensive of the 1890s meant that the reduction of hours was slow and sometimes reversed. By 1906 average hours worked by manual workers were still 54 to 55. By the 1920s that had dropped to a 47 hour week and was still at 44 hours by the 1950s.
However, in the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s workers did achieve a slight reduction in hours down to 40 by 1968 and a real increase in holidays. During the long boom of these postwar years, the capitalists were happy to look to greater investment in machinery, developing a higher level of workers' skills to increase productivity. They could afford to concede shorter hours and longer holidays. Now, however, after 20 years of crisis, they are trying to boost their profits by turning once again to raise the level of what Marx called `absolute surplus value': lengthening working hours, cutting wages, abolishing tea breaks and so on.
Unemployment stands officially at 20 million in the EU countries alone. Those who have no work are therefore denied access to even the most basic living standards which employed workers expect. But instead of shortening the working week of everyone and finding employment for all who can work, those in existing employment are forced to work longer hours under worse conditions.
The introduction of machinery into offices and shops word processors or computerised tills for example has increased the level of exploitation in such areas and has made workers in these areas subject to shift work, speedup and direct control at a level undreamt of a generation ago.
The arguments about the length of the working day are about how best to exploit workers. Some bosses still believe they can achieve more by maintaining a level of regulation in the workplace and having decent sick pay or maternity leave. Others are behind the Tory government in wanting a deregulated low wage economy where Britain can undercut its European rivals. But both sides are increasingly looking to attacks on hours, benefits and wages themselves as a means of increasing the rate of exploitation. We can expect no better under a Labour government since Tony Blair has also embraced flexibility. It is no wonder then that these attacks are once again creating opposition from workers, just as they did in the early decades of industrial capitalism.