Archives for category: workplace organising
Leadership and the myth of apathy

From Why aren’t we rising up? Whether the ‘we’ in question is young people, the British people, or the poor, this is a question asked an awful lot by both mainstream and leftist commentators. Austerity, job cuts, pay freezes, workfare, poverty, food banks, police brutality, political corruption – it’s all the rage, so why aren’t we all enraged?

There are two standard answers on the left: apathy and the lack of leadership. Either people are too engrossed in their own little world of X Factor, I’m a Celebrity and ‘I’m alright Jack,’ or they just don’t have the right hero to lead them into battle. The left wing rabble rousers of the past are dead and gone and we need people to replace them and rally the workers.

The trouble is, both of these answers are wrong. Moreover, they play into a convenient myth that helps the pale, stale males of the authoritarian left sustain themselves while doing nothing at all to stop the world around us decaying into shit.

People are not apathetic

Well, sure, some are. Everyone knows at least one person who’s aggressively and proudly apolitical. They “don’t want none of that” if anything halfway substantial comes up in conversation, yet it always turns out that they’ve internalised the narratives of the right wing press on how immigrants and scroungers are to blame for everything.

These people do exist, but to tout them as an archetype for the public-at-large and that’s just wrong.

There’s a level of truth, as with any stereotype. But when the world’s full of problems and there’s no effective counter to the dominant narrative (we’ll get to that) then of course you take the answers available. Even if they’re racist, classist and built on a foundation of lies.

But speak to the vast majority of people, and they’re not apathetic. They have opinions on political issues. A great many have a fairly solid unconscious understanding of class and their lot in life. Where they have internalised ruling class ideology, they’re smart enough to realise and change their mind if you engage with them and talk to them.

This goes against the labels thrown around, particularly by crackerjack hacktivists such as Anonymous and batshit conspiracy theorists but also by some on the left, such as ‘sheeple’ and suggestions that everyone not already out on the streets protesting is brainwashed. In fact, they’re alienated, exploited and oppressed under capitalism and this kind of activist mentality is toxic and does nothing to advance the class struggle.

So what about the supposed ‘need’ for leaders?

Resistance doesn’t happen spontaneously. It happens when people organise, make conscious decisions and act upon them. This requires people to take the initiative, the sharing out of roles and responsibilities, and not a bit of education and agitation.

But while this could be considered a type of leadership – a ‘leadership of ideas,’ for want of a better term – it’s not leadership in the sense that most on the left mean it.

When the left’s kind of leadership emerges it’s easy to recognise – it involves representation by prominent spokespeople instead of empowering people to act for themselves. It involves executive power concentrated in the hands of a few. It involves a division of labour between ‘activists’ and ‘intellectuals.’ It involves a clear hierarchy with activity directed from above and disagreement of any kind condemned as ‘divisive’ or ‘sectarian.’

By and large, people don’t want this. When this kind of leadership emerges, if it fills a vacuum then it will attract people – at first. The vast majority of people will tire of being directed like pawns, treated as an expendable resource and having little to no say in decision making. This is not only why the leftist confessional sects such as the Socialist Party, SWP and so on have such a high turnover of membership, their cadres a minorrity next to their paper membership, but also why the fronts they set up lose momentum once the formulaic authoritarianism loses its novelty.

It’s also why movements which have arisen in the wake of the crisis have lacked this kind of hierarchical structure. UK Uncut and Occupy being the most commonly cited examples. In the fight against the Bedroom Tax, local groups acted for themselves and built up horizontal federations while the Trot fronts seeking to capitalise on the struggle floundered on the sidelines.

But there’s still a gap that needs filling. The Occupys of this world have their own flaws, the ‘tyranny of structureless‘ meaning that invisible hierarchies tend to emerge and those who seek to ‘represent’ others by imposing their own views on the collective don’t have to deal with formal representative democracy.

We need organisation and democracy, but it should be non-hierarchical organisation and direct democracy. Organisers should seek to give people the confidence to act for themselves, not merely to follow the organiser and keep them in their position for a long time to come. Officers should be mandated delegates with limited tenure, no executive power and the ability to be recalled by the mass. Democracy should mean making the decisions for ourselves, as in a strike ballot, rather than electing someone else to make decisions for us, as in a general election.

People as a broader whole are not apathetic, nor are they waiting for a leader. If we are led, then the destination is never freedom but a different kind of domination. If we want an uprising, then it requires hard work, patience, agitation and most importantly a desire to organise so that we can all fight for ourselves rather than being chewed up and spat out by any one of the myriad, toxic would-be leaderships that the authoritarian left has to offer.


Meaningful work: an appeal to the young

An article by Scott Nappalos about meaning in choosing employment, from

From the time I was a child, I was told to follow my dreams and do something I truly loved. Granted I rarely met an adult who was passionate about their work, but they seemed sincere in their desire for others to take that path. The advice of course usually had a piece of bitterness attached to it. As I came of age, the terrain didn’t look pretty. Most of my personal passions were deserts for employment. Nor did I really know anyone who was living the dream, so to speak, at work. My path began from leaving that advice behind.

Society is littered with talk of meaningful work. The creative class, jobs that means something, doing something with one’s life, work that matters, helping people; we’re inundated with phrases, words, and images that describe our poverty and the future that we are supposed to aspire to.

It’s actually worse for people who commit themselves to making radical change in society. A confluence of pressures pushes down on them year after year through family wondering when they will grow up, friends perpetually moving on to something better, and a gnawing sense of wasted potential. Why bother with the endless meetings, the mindless work, and for what?

Unless you’re born into a situation where work is unnecessary, nearly everyone experiences the modern workplace. Service work in particular serves as a stark reminder of reality and alternatives. The unending drudgery of task after task slinging fatty coffee that literally poisons people’s health, selling useless items created on the backs of abused workers elsewhere, cardboard boxes rolling down the line that just keep coming and coming, forcing a smile when we are cursed at or harassed; Nearly everyone has been forced to participate in the bitterness of having our time stolen. It’s perhaps harder to bare for those who know the widest extent of the misery of humanity and understand how preventable it all is.

The sense of meaninglessness in jobs is a strong current in society. Tv shows, films, music, and other forms of pop culture repeat the comedy, frustration, and depression of spending one’s time on tasks that seem pointless. This isn’t to say that people’s jobs don’t make a difference. Many things we do keep society running and contributes to the social good. The meaninglessness of work in today’s society arises out of the reflection of workers that their time is not really benefiting the people they serve or advancing them as people. As a healthcare worker I can see both sides of this. Obviously healthcare is crucial for societies. At the same time any hospital worker can recognize how it is that the healthcare system not only harms people, but also in general contributes to people staying sick. Meaning is something deeper than just keeping the gears moving and helping our fellow human beings. Meaning is about where we are headed and who we are. This is where youth get squeezed and falter.

Modern capitalism with its base of debt makes everything seem possible. The compulsion to put food on the table is softened by easy credit. We can go back to school, live on credit cards, travel to cheap places, and find means to delay work enough to get by. Young people accumulate useless degrees and insane debts while deferring the future and often slipping into the delusions of jobs that simply do not exist. Choosing what to do with our lives takes on the characteristic of other more banal decisions. We are shopping for an ethical product. Validation stands at the core of this, and plays off the fear of a wasted life, idle efforts, and ending up trapped chasing false ideals. What to tell worried parents who watched their child squander what chances they had for material success? It is better to say that one is employed fighting poverty, educating the youth, or some other remix of Mother Theresa, Gandhi, or perhaps Bono.

The problem is that there is no escape. Professors spend decades moving town to town as itinerant adjuncts teaching the most bland classes, writing mechanical essays in desperation to stay published, and constantly struggling for something more stable. Even at it’s best, University life leaves less time for liberatory thought and action than the part time service worker. Union organizers spend seventy or eighty hour weeks at the service of hostile bureaucracies, and too often find themselves in the position of pimping the Democratic party and selling backroom deals with management to disillusioned workers. NGO staff share the same fate, bending to the will of the funders and forced to represent the interests of the powerful under false flags of social change. Self-employment and cooperatives turn activist efforts into business efforts, and consume more time than any capitalist could ever demand from a job. Good people find themselves lost there, tired of all the worn appearances that hide a rotten structure, yearning to escape too their work and get back to something more authentic.

We need to question and even condemn the pressure on youth to find meaningful work. As long as we live in capitalism, its deep wells will poison all the streams flowing into our cities. With capitalist work, even the most holy pursuit will end up in mindlessness, subservience to stupid management, and in fighting the current trying to make some good out of a hostile situation that constantly tries to undo our efforts. This isn’t to say that some don’t enjoy their jobs. Some do. Yet on the balance, the vast majority can’t find employment that will engage them, and those who do generally must sacrifice the rest of their lives for the privilege. The real question to be raised isn’t whether you should enjoy your job or not, but whether you should dedicate your life to work. Or better, what is the relation of living to working?

This logic should be turned on its head. It’s not what we’re employed doing that should define, validate, or give meaning to our lives; it’s our life itself that does. How much brighter does the future look to liberate oneself from the oppressive concept of boundless sacrifice to meaningful jobs? Why shouldn’t youth seek to maximize their lives against this work? There are other roads open to us. We can work, as we must, but can struggle to find the most time for ourselves and our causes. Better we write, protest, organize, and gather in our workplaces on time off, than to cement that relationship into employment or worse into our identities.

Our lives are defined by what we do, not who writes our paychecks. A political life is an attempt to regain a meaningful life. It is a task for all of society, and not monopolized by a special class employed as professional politicians, bureaucrats, and humanitarians. Meaning is not at work, but in the beauty of daily living, in struggling for a better world, and whatever path your desires take you towards. Our joy is not found in simply imposing our will onto the world, but in the happiness that can only be found in fighting for a more just and beautiful world around us. Dedicating oneself to the struggles of others changes you. Within, we must fight to constantly overcome ourselves against the current, a process that can be deeply enriching. The commitment and work of liberation makes all of society our classroom, our workplaces gymnasiums, and our neighborhoods galleries.

Sacco and Vanzetti remind us of the infinite potential and beauty of life even from within the walls of prison. The two Italian anarchist immigrants dedicated their lives to the causes of their class working as a cobbler and a fish peddler respectively. Their sacrifices were more than just in their professions, as they were framed for murder and executed by the state of Massachusetts. The writings of the pair from prison are inspiring not only for their perseverance and insights, but for their joy. Sacco wrote to his son Dante his final letter before his execution, sitting down as we do, to find words for the path life carries us down. Facing his own death and the life of his son in front of him, he wrote

“Don’t cry Dante, because many tears have been wasted, as your mother’s have been wasted for seven years, and never did any good. So, Son, instead of crying, be strong, so as to be able to comfort your mother, and when you want to distract your mother from the discouraging soulness, I will tell you what I used to do. To take her for a long walk in the quiet country, gathering wild flowers her and there, resting under the shade of trees, between the harmony of the vivid stream and the gentle tranquility of the mothernature, and I am sure that she will enjoy this very much, as you surely would be happy for it. But remember always, Dante, in the play of happiness, don’t you use all for yourself only, but down yourself just one step, at your side and help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim, because that are your better friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell yesterday for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all and the poor workers. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved.”[1]

In spite of all the sadness that surrounds us and plagues this world. Our daily lives can be the work of love. We do not need titles, positions, or to be taken into service to achieve this work. We only need the commitment to set ourselves to the betterment of all and to dive head in to the struggle against power. Against the monotony and pervasive depression we see, Vanzetti offers this:

“I am convinced that human history has not yet begun; that we find ourselves in the last period of the prehistoric. I see with the eyes of my soul how the sky is suffused with the rays of the new millennium.”[2]

Beyond the horizon of today lie potentials for humanity freed from the artificial constraints of society twisted by the contours of power and wealth. We do not need to imagine paradises, utopias, or that any political movement can solve all of humanity’s problems to see how much more is possible. This is the task of youth today, to constantly push further in practice and expose the expanding vista of human potential.

[1] Sacco, Nicola. 8/18/1927. Letter to Dante Sacco.

[2] Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The Story of a Proletarian Life.

The changes, set out in the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, are designed to push down wages and undermine hard-won conditions. 

Employers will be able to walk away from bargaining
Employers can walk away from negotiations for collective agreements without a genuine reason to do so. In the recent Ports of Auckland dispute this is what stopped the company’s plan to sack all its workers during bargaining.

This change will let employers say they have had enough of bargaining at any point and there will be nothing workers can do. Equally employers will be able threaten to give workers’ jobs to someone else while they are bargaining to force them to agree. This tips the balance of power in negotiations towards employers.

New staff will be employed on less pay and worse conditions
Right now, new employees are covered by the collective agreement in their workplace for the first 30 days. This means employers are not allowed to pay less that what is in place. Employees are at their most vulnerable when they are new to the job as they have little bargaining power. This protection is to be stripped away so they can be paid less and open to instant dismissal. Over time this will reduce everyone’s pay and conditions: the Cabinet paper recommending these changes, signed by the Minister of Labour, actually says they, “will enable employers to offer individual terms and conditions that are less than those in the collective agreement”.
Meal and rest breaks
The Bill removes the guaranteed minimum break times, allowing employers to decide how long breaks will be. It also allows employers to decide that breaks can be at the very beginning or end of the working day, and that they can be paid out rather than being taken.
All industrial action will require notice
Unions will have to give notice of all strikes. This will make it more difficult for members to take industrial action for better pay and conditions.
Fines for partial strikes and working-to-rule
Your employer will be able to deduct a portion of your pay for a partial strike, such as not answering the phone or working-to-rule (only doing what is in your contract or job description).
Job protection will be stripped away
At present, the law protects the jobs and conditions of low-paid workers, such as in home care, when a contract changes hands. The government plans to strip away this protection for workplaces with fewer than 20 employees. These workers will have no job security when a contract changes to a new employer.
Employers able to opt out of MECA bargaining
Employers will be able to withdraw from bargaining for multi-employercollective agreements (MECAs) by giving 10 days’ notice at the start of negotiations – this could dismantle MECAs that have brought steady improvements in pay and conditions for union members.
No access to your employment information
If your job is under threat, your employer will be able to withhold information from you if, for example, it refers to another person. This could make it impossible to defend yourself in a disciplinary situation or to challenge a redundancy.
Speak with your co-workers about these changes and what you can do about them. Suggest stop-work meetings to your delegates. Least of all, submissions against the Bill can be made here (closes 25 July):

Continuing the shorter working day theme, here’s the IWW pamphlet ‘Arguments for a Four-Hour Day’. Chapter 4 from ‘The Problem with Work’ by Kathi Weeks, which argues for a six-hour day, will follow in the future.

This pamphlet is a revised and updated version of an article which appeared in Libertarian Labor Review #1 (1986), based on a presentation on the fight for a shorter workweek sponsored by the Chicago General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World in January 1986.

The Fight for the Four-Hour Day

On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers struck thousands of shops across the United States in a national campaign for the Eight Hour Day. In Chicago, center of the movement and a stronghold of anarchist, revolutionary unionism,40,000 workers struck and 80,000 workers joined a May Day parade organized by the International Working People’s Association and the revolutionary Central Labor Union. In the decades that followed, the Eight Hour Day and Five Day Week became universal (the 40-hour week was even enacted into U.S. law in 1938), and in the 1930s the American Federation of Labor launched a short-lived lobbying campaign for the Six Hour Day.

Yet today the 40-hour work week remains the legal norm – a norm as often honored in the breach as in reality. Indeed, the average full-time worker in the U.S. now works nearly 49 hours a week, according to the Harris Poll. (Government statistics put the work week at considerably less, largely because they draw their data from employers; with the dramatic growth of part-time work someone putting in 45 hours a week on three jobs would be reported as three workers putting in 15 hours each – and drag the average down considerably. But the U.S. Labor Department reports that the average manufacturing worker put in 4.6 hours of overtime per week in 1998.)[1] And while we are once again seeing massive and often successful strikes for shorter hours in other countries (particularly in Europe, but workers in several Asian countries have also won significant cuts in their working hours), in the United States there is no serious movement in this direction today.

There have been no reductions in the average U.S. work week in the more than sixty years since the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed. Indeed, working hours have been held steady only by the rapid growth of part-time, low-paid work – the proportion of workers putting in more than 48 hours a week on the job has been steadily increasing since 1948.[2] The long hours we are putting in on the job have serious consequences for our health, for our fellow workers forced onto unemployment lines, and for our ability to lead the rich, fulfilling lives that should be ours by right. Our lives should not be dominated by drudgery and toil, slaving away for endless hours to make our masters rich. Sixty years of stagnation is long enough – it’s time to resume the fight for shorter hours.

Working Ourselves Out of Our jobs

One in ten U.S. workers today is unemployed or working part-time because they can’t find full-time jobs. (Government statistics putting unemployment at 4 percent or less ignore the huge numbers of workers involuntarily working part-time, as well as millions of workers who have been driven from the job market by employers’ refusal to consider hiring them. Sociologist Harry Brill recently estimated that U.S. unemployment is actually about 11 percent.) There is a great deal of evidence that unemployment is substantially higher than the official statistics indicate, including. the fact that wages have remained stagnant in what the government insists is a “dangerously tight” labor market, and that it took unemployed workers 13.4 weeks on average to find a new job in 1999 – this at a time when millions of U.S. workers’ financial condition is so precarious that they are but one or two paychecks from becoming homeless. Unable to find work in their field millions of college-educated workers are taking jobs as street vendors, janitors, bus and truck drivers, and sales workers. Census data shows unemployment rates of 17 percent for computer programmers over age 50, despite long overtime hours and employers’ claims that they can not find enough qualified workers and must import them from overseas.[3]

For millions of our fellow workers, unemployment is a grim daily reality. For those of us who are working, unemployment hangs over our heads as a constant threat undermining our wages and working conditions and providing the bosses with a ready source of scabs. The unemployed, of course, are barely (if that) able to scrape by, often unable to afford the most basic necessities of life and so are often compelled to take work at whatever conditions the employers offer. Welfare “reform” makes their plight all the more desperate, while raising the tragic specter of millions of hungry children left to fend for themselves while their mothers toil away long hours in minimum-wage, deadend jobs.

A number of factors cause unemployment – some, such as economic recessions and depressions and so-called overproduction, are cyclical. But there are two major causes of unemployment which do not go away during eco nomic “recoveries” (that is, during periods of rising profits). The first, and most serious, is the economic system under which we live and work, which makes it profitable to cut payrolls even when the work we do is desperately needed. (When a corporate executive “needs” to boost his company’s stock price, the first thing he does is put out a press release announcing that the company will ax thousands of workers. Many companies slashed so many jobs in these orgies of bloodletting that they have been forced to rehire many of those displaced wage slaves.) Thus we see construction workers facing massive unemployment at the same time that hundreds of thousands are without housing, and streets and other infrastructure are falling apart. We see farmers going bankrupt because there is no market for the food they grow at the same time that millions are starving. We see industries where the bulk of productive capacity has been mothballed, and others which no one could properly term productive going full steam because that’s where the money is. This is the fundamental cause of unemployment, and as long as we allow this rotten system to persist want, misery and unemployment will always be with us.

Of course, this corporate bloodletting does not eliminate the need for work, so the bosses respond by piling more work on those who remain, and by hiring armies of part-time and temporary workers who typically work without benefits for a fraction of the pay, without even the faintest hint of job security. One week a temp might be ordered to put in 60 or 80 hours, the next week they might not work at all. Often, temps go into work not knowing how many hours they will work that day, or whether they’ll have a job the next.

The other systemic cause of unemployment is automation, which eliminates jobs by enabling fewer workers to do more work. Automation is eliminating jobs not only in the manufacturing sector, but in “service” industries as well. And though these new technologies do create some new jobs in their wake, these jobs are generally lower-paid than the ones they eliminate, require less skill, and are far fewer in number. (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that over the next decade 57 percent of job growth will be in occupations requiring little to no training or education beyond a high school diploma, with “low” or “very low” hourly pay.) Millions of manufacturing jobs have been lost due to automation in the last two decades, with the workers who remain increasingly tending robots. Automation is now deeply entrenched in service occupations as well. As the “information revolution” took off, the Science Council of Canada projected massive lay-offs in information processing and handling industries due to automation and new technologies, singling out the disproportionate impact of such unemployment on women. New technologies in the service sector have also led to skyrocketing occupational stress. Many workers are collapsing under increased workloads and inhuman work schedules, and our fellow workers’ bodies are literally falling apart from repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.[4]

“The conclusion is clear,” reports the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department. “The new jobs being generated in most cases now involve a lower standard of living – for the individual worker and for the society as a whole. … The occupations experiencing the largest net growth in number of jobs demand little skill, are only weakly organized into unions, and usually offer little pay – ranging from building custodians to fast-food workers.”[5]

Making the Bosses Rich(er)

Automation and other innovations result in our productivity (output per work hour) doubling every 25 years or so. We now produce about three times as much in an hour of work as we did in 1947, but are we living three times as well or working a third as much? Far from living better, average wages (adjusted for inflation) are only slightly higher than they were 25 years ago. And we’re not putting any fewer hours in on the job either, in fact we’re working longer and harder – somebody’s benefiting from the fact that our work is producing more; but it’s not us.[6]

The machines that eliminate workers from payrolls are built by workers. They’re paid for out of profits created by our labor. So why should we bear the costs, while the bosses reap the profits? And, for that matter, why should the decisions about whether to introduce this robot or that new chemical process be made by the bosses, instead of by us? After all, we’re the ones who’ll be working with the damn things.

I am not against automation – the prospect of drudge work being eliminated by new technology is, properly handled, a welcome one. (However, the new technology often realizes its increased productivity by forcing us to work harder. Some computer terminals now keep track of the number of characters typed per minute and report workers who fall behind company standards to management. At Hormel Meatpacking’s Austin, Minnesota, plant workers found that a new high-tech line led to horrendous injury rates more than twice the industry average as workers struggled to keep up with faster line speeds.)

Eliminating useless work doesn’t have to mean eliminating workers. But if we leave control of industry to the bosses, work the same hours, live the same way, and produce twice as much as we used to, it stands to reason that we’re going to work ourselves right out of our jobs. The bosses don’t employ us out of charity, after all.

Scabbing on the Unemployed

Fifty years ago the American Federation of Labor called for a 30-hour work week (the U.S. Senate even passed a 30-hour law, though it was defeated in the House); in 1961 the head of the New York Central Labor Council urged unions to campaign for a 4-hour day; but today the business unions won’t campaign even for a 35-hour week. Indeed, many unions, including the United Auto Workers and the United Mine Workers of America, have watched massive overtime make even the 40-hour week seem a feeble joke while their members suffer record unemployment.

In the December 1985 edition of the United Mine Workers Journal, for example, a laid-off Illinois miner wrote in to express his feelings (and those of his 88 laid-off coworkers) “that most of us could be working now if our UMWA brothers and sisters were not working overtime. As long as they are working overtime, we feel we have no chance of getting called back.” Soon afterwards, the Journal published a letter from a miner’s wife explaining that her husband worked overtime – substantial overtime – not because he wanted to or was unconcerned with the fate of his fellow UMWA workers, but because the company would fire him (or any miner who refused overtime) if he didn’t. (There has been no indication in the pages of the UMW Journal since then that the union is fighting to end forced overtime.)

In the 15 years since then the situation has only gotten worse. Manufacturing overtime hours soared in the 1990s, as employers responded to the economic recovery not by hiring new workers but rather by making their existing workers work harder. In the early 1990s, the bosses continued layingoff workers even as they piled on the overtime. A Bureau of Labor Statistics economist reports that between March 1991 (when the recovery began) and January 1998, employers added 601,000 production workers and increased overtime hours the equivalent of another 571,000 jobs. Eliminating the increased overtime in transportation equipment manufacturing (auto and aerospace), which has been decimated by lay-offs and plant closings, would have created 107,000 new jobs (eliminating overtime work altogether would double that).[7]

The question of unemployment – not just locally, but on the global scale on which the bosses now operate – is inseparable from the question of overtime, particularly forced overtime. Overtime is typically concentrated in those industries where unemployment is highest, such as automaking, shipyards and steel mills, and in many manufacturing industries 50- to 56-hour weeks and 12-to 16-hour days are not uncommon.[8] Sometimes this overtime is “voluntary” but often, even in organized shops, it’s not. The bosses work us overtime because it’s cheaper than hiring on extra workers to take up the slack. But overtime makes poor labor economics; like speed-ups, overtime inevitably leads to lay-offs and less income. To work overtime is ultimately to scab on ourselves, and to scab on the unemployed.

A Life At Hard Labor

It’s absurd, but the typical U.S. worker puts in about as many hours a year today as British urban workers put in in the latter half of the 16th century. (They worked longer work days, but had many more days off.)[9] If you add in the increase in commuting time and such, our work week is about as long as what workers put in in 1850.[10] Productivity has skyrocketed in the intervening period, as have our living standards. But our living standards have not come close to keeping up with our increased productivity. Instead much of our productivity has gone to hire a host of supervisors and other non-productive workers, and to soaring profits.

Increasingly employment is concentrated in the so-called service sector, and in prisons and military production. Huge numbers of workers are employed – often at miserable wages – to keep track of and facilitate the flow of profits. Other service workers are engaged in providing vital human services, such as health care or education, and so are paid even less. But many, perhaps most, of our fellow workers are engaged in activity that is at best non-productive, and often actually counter-productive from the standpoint of meeting human needs.

Capitalism has literally sentenced workers to a life at hard labor. Fifteen years ago, in 1985, we saw two events that viewed together embody the total inability of the capitalist system to deliver the goods. On the one hand we saw hundreds of thousands of people organizing and donating to an effort to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief. Shortly thereafter, tens of thousands did the same on behalf of American farmers who are desperately trying to cut back production and maintain government subsidies in order to stave off bankruptcy. (Since then, the number of family farmers has been sharply reduced and much agricultural land converted to suburban sprawl – famines continue unabated, often in the very same countries which are under pressure from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to increase their exports of agricultural products in order to generate foreign currency to pay off the bankers.) Similar contrasts between unmet needs and unused productive capacity could be cited in virtually any sphere (except military production) of the economy.

Our Time Is Our Life

while ago I was speaking on the need for a shorter work week, and was challenged by a member of the audience who was working a 70-hour week at two jobs. He contended that he was better off than he had been when he worked only 40 hours, making more money but with nothing to do with his time but lie in bed listening to his radio and getting high. I take a slightly different view of such matters, and suspect that most of my fellow workers don’t have lives so empty that we’re better off letting the bosses keep us busy.

In 1962, New York City electricians struck for and won a 25-hour work week (though they were generally obliged to work an additional five hours at overtime rates). The strikes in the mid-1980s by Virginia shipyard workers demanding the right to have their weekends off or by German metalworkers for a 35-hour week would seem to indicate that large numbers of workers continue to want more free time, as would the long and ultimately unsuccessful strike in the early 1990s by A.E. Staley workers against rotating shifts and 12-hour days (autoworkers in Flint, Michigan, won a 1994 walk-out demanding that more workers be hired to relieve brutal workloads and overtime) and the 1998 strike by Danish private sector workers for the six-hour day and longer vacations.[11] In May 2000 nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts, won a strike against the Tenet hospital chain in which the main issue was Tenet’s demand for up to eight hours a day of mandatory overtime; one of a growing number of labor disputes across the U.S. and the world against “flexible” work schedules, double-shifts, mandatory overtime and other such assaults on what remains of our free time and our lives.

Many other struggles against overtime or brutal “flexible” work schedules were defeated, but workers have made it clear that they are not willing to acquiesce to these assaults against our few precious hours of free time without a fight, and growing numbers are prepared to once again take the offensive and demand shorter hours.

The most important reason to fight for shorter hours is quite simple: Our time is our life. We are compelled to rent a major portion of our waking hours to the bosses for their purposes in order to buy back the things we produce and need so that we can live our lives (and have a little fun). The time we spend at work is not our own, and far too much of it is squandered on useless production, the support of parasites (bosses, supervisors, investment bankers, marketers and the like), the construction of the means of our annihilation, and so forth. A shorter work week, without loss of pay or speed-ups, would not only reduce unemployment and lead to fewer industrial accidents and deaths (a disproportionate number of which occur in the final hours of work, due to fatigue),[12] it would give us more free time in which to enjoy life.

We could use that time to nurture our families and rebuild our communities, to make art or music or to study subjects that interest us. We could socialize, party, reflect, relax. We could use some of the free time we so richly deserve to get together with our fellow workers to discuss the kind of society we would like to live in, and to begin a campaign to create it. More free time (for too many of us, any free time at all) would provide us the means to lead more fulfilling, truly human lives.

A campaign for shorter hours also has potential universal appeal – benefiting both the organized and unorganized, employed and unemployed alike. It could help reinvigorate a labor movement that has been stagnating since this fight was abandoned, and which was largely built around the struggle to cut the work week. And such a campaign would cut at the root of the bosses’ profits by restricting the number of hours we work solely for their enrichment.

The Futility of Legislation

Rather than organize our class at the point of production, many labor “reformers” prefer to rely on Congress. But every reduction in the work week in this country has been accomplished through labor action, through strikes and direct action on the job. Our strength as a labor movement lies in our organization and our willingness to act in solidarity with each other, not in appeals to the politicians.

From time to time, legislators have proposed new laws to cut the work week or increase penalties on overtime work. Substantial energies and funds have been invested in such legislation for more than a hundred years, but those laws which have been passed have been almost wholly ineffective. Indeed, the U.S. government has never adopted enforceable legislation cutting the work week below that already won by the vast majority of workers except under threat of a general strike (as in the case of the 1915 Railway Act declared constitutional by the Supreme Court on March 15, 1917, under threat of national strike action). In England, parliament frequently passed legislation regulating the length of the work week, but M.A. Bienefeld shows that aside from a few cases where prevailing conditions were extended to industries employing predominantly women and children, these laws were aimed not at reducing the work week, but rather at maintaining or increasing its length. Similarly, by the time the U.S. Congress finally approved the 40-hour work, many workers had already won shorter working hours.[13]

This is because any meaningful sense of full employment is incompatible with our economic system. The financial press routinely speaks of the economic benefits of preserving a large reserve pool of unemployed workers, and warn of impending economic disaster when too many of our fellow workers secure jobs. They do not speak this way because they derive some sort of sadistic pleasure from seeing our class suffer, but because their economic interests require substantial unemployment (or, at minimum, ill-paid, insecure jobs little better than actual joblessness) in order to enforce labor discipline, contain wage costs, and ensure that workers are readily available when and if needed – that is, when or if it becomes profitable to hire them.

Labor activist William McGaughey, in A Shorter Workweek in the 1980s, argued that modest cuts in the work week to 32 hours would actually benefit the employing class. The bosses evidently did not find this argument convincing, and neither do I. Any effort to reduce or eliminate unemployment within the existing economic system necessarily entails costs – either for the bosses or for us. McGaughey, like most unionists who have spoken in recent years of the need for a shorter work week, believes that shorter hours should be fought for in the political arena – that workers should mobilize to persuade the government to adopt laws mandating shorter hours.

Such laws have been passed before (a whole series of state laws were adopted in the late 1800s purporting to establish the 8-Hour Day, for example), but they have done little good where workers have not possessed the industrial organization to compel the employers to accept shorter hours. In 1923, the IWW argued: “With the state the workers need not concern themselves except to recognize its class character and function. To scheme for concessions and favors from it, as an institution, is to cherish a delusion. To construct and develop an instrumentality by which the workers in the industries can assert and advance their interests… is to have generated a power that will compel the state to modify its programs and conduct so as to accord with the changes which the workers will force in this relationship to the employers.” The same pamphlet noted that “Government has always been a disguise under which acquisitive predatory powers moved for the conquest of socially necessary things and by which they held the producers… in subjection. … The acts of the legislative bodies, the decisions of the courts, the use of repressive forces by executives, the control of the educational system, all manifest a class hostility and all tend to’keep the working class in its place’.”[14]

Recognizing this fact, the IWW seeks to organize workers at the point of production to win our demands through our economic power as producers. It was in this fashion that IWW-organized lumber workers won the Eight-Hour Day in the Pacific Northwest, simply by refusing to work the extra hours that the bosses demanded – backed up, of course, by solid organization.

The Four Hour Day

Not only is the work week not being cut, over the last 50 years it has grown substantially longer for millions of workers. This retreat on the shorter hours front follows more than a century of battles for a shorter work week. Yet a shorter work week is practical even within the constraints of a capitalist society. (Indeed, workers already put in far fewer working hours per year than we do in the United States in most industrialized countries; usually in the form of longer vacations.) If we move beyond the constraints imposed by capitalism, deep cuts in the work week are quite feasible. German economists concluded many years ago that a 20-hour week would suffice to meet socially necessary production given an egalitarian division of labor and the abolition of unproductive activity. This is, to say the least, a conservative estimate; in 1932 engineers at Columbia University demonstrated that workers could live extremely comfortably on four hours of work a day, if industry was properly arranged. And a study by the Goodman brothers published in the mid-1960s argued that “our present-day capabilities, intelligently used, could enable each one of us to work fewer than 10 hours a week” to meet our needs. More recently, Harvard economist Juliet Schor has demonstrated that a four-hour day could have been implemented in the United States a decade ago without any decline in living standards.[15]

Shorter hours, of course, are not a panacea. Minor cuts in the work week – say to 35 or 32 hours – would not eliminate unemployment, nor would they bring an end to the exploitation that we suffer every day on the job. But they could, if coupled with a strong fight against overtime and speed-ups and effective-resistance to pay cuts, lead to quantitative and qualitative improvements in our lives. (Without such a fight, overtime and speed-ups can quickly erode or negate these benefits. In 1850, Leeds (England) gas workers won a reduction of the workday from 12 to 8 hours, but soon complained that the employers “tried to put such a frightful amount of work upon them (the workmen) as would make them beg for the twelve hours day again.”[16] In the U.S., rubberworkers had a 30-hour work week for many years, which was eroded through overtime and ultimately eliminated. Today, French workers are finding that employers are trying to cheat on the new 35-hour week by speeding up production. Clearly it is not enough to win shorter hours, workers must be organized to resist the bosses’ attempts to recoup the time through speedups or overtime if we are to make lasting gains.)

The IWW argues that we should fight not merely to put people to work, but rather that we should organize workers as a class to reorganize society and production in our own interests. We favor substantial cuts in the work week, but these must be won by workers at the point of production – determined not to lose out through pay cuts, speed-ups or overtime – if they are to be effective.

For many years the IWW has called for a Four Hour Day. This may strike some as drastic or utopian, but only because the labor movement did not fight for and win the Six-Hour Day when it became practical sixty years ago. Significant cuts in the work week – to 16 or 20 hours – would require significant reorganization of production, and perhaps even the elimination of the host of capitalist parasites we presently support. But such cuts could be won by a working class determined to do so. The productive capacity exists to make a Four-Hour Day practical, though many of the necessary workers have been diverted into low-paid, insecure and socially useless labor. Even more modest reductions in the work week would be an improvement over present conditions, provided only that our class was organized well enough to ensure that we were not forced to bear the costs.

The four-hour day is practical, it’s necessary, and we’ve already paid for it. Now it’s up to us to organize to take our time back from the employers who have been robbing us of the product of our labor, our dignity, and enormous (and growing) chunks of our lives for centuries.


[1] “Americans Working More: Playing Less,” The Harris Survey, December 26 1985; Monthly Labor Review, March 2000, p. 85. Susan Shank and Patricia Getz, writing in the February 1986 Monthly Labor Review, report an average workweek of 35.2 hours, noting that this low number is largely due to increased retail trade and service employment (with high levels of part-time work; government statistics show the average retail worker working just 29 hours a week). Harris’ data is drawn from surveys of workers and uses a broad definition of working hours.

[2] William McGaughey Jr., A Shorter Workweek in the 1980s, 1981, p. 38. Shank and Getz (MLR< February 1986) report a decline from 1945 to 1985 of 5 hours in the average work week, which they attribute to the growing importance of part-time work. The Handbook of U.S. Labor Statistics (2nd Ed., Bernam Press, 1998, pp. 143-44) shows that the average work week for manufacturing workers is higher today than it was in 1947. Average overtime increased from 2.8 hours a week in 1956 to 4.8 hours in 1997 (p. 145) – a figure held down by the many workers who put in no overtime.

[3] Z Magazine, September 1999, cited in “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #27, Winter 1999, p. 1; Harry Brill, “More Graduates, Fewer Jobs,” Against The Current #82, September/October 1999, pp. 34-39; Monthly Labor Review, March 2000, p. 76 (1999 unemployment rate is 4.2 percent, but is 11.1 percent for young men age 16-24 – reflecting the huge numbers of young workers unsuccessfully trying to break into the work force, many of whom who will eventually become discouraged and disappear from the statistics). Brill’s estimate takes into account substantial undercounting of poor people by the U.S. Census as well as correcting for peculiarities in how the government defines unemployment.

[4] Douglas Braddock, “Occupational employment projections to 2008,” Monthly Labor Review, November 1999, pp. 51-77; David Noble, “Tools of Oppression,” Dollars & Sense, October 1984, p. 16; “Free Time: The Case for a Shorter Workweek,” Ideas & Action, Winter 1985; Science Council of Canada cited in Vincent Mosco, Pushbutton Fantasies, Ablex; Kim Moody & Simone Sagovac, Time Out!, Labor Notes, 1995. Among the top 30 occupations ranked by projected number of new jobs are retail sales (#2), cashiers (#3), office clerks (#6), home health aides (#8), teacher assistants (#9), nursing aides (#10), receptionists (#14), waiters and waitresses (#15), security guards (#16), food service workers (#18), child care workers (#19), and landscaping laborers (#20). Much of this (though by no means all) is essential work, but it is presently ill-paid, often temporary or part-time, and offers little if any prospect for workers to secure a minimally decent livelihood save through collective organization and struggle.

[5] “Deindustrialization and the Two-Tier Society,” AFL-CIO, 1984, p. 11.

[6] Handbook of U.S. Labor Statistics, p. 199; Monthly Labor Review, March 2000, p. 109; Wm. McGaughey, p. 34; Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1983, cited in Gilda Haas, Plant Closings: Myths, Realities and Responses, South End Press, 1985, p. 13.

[7] Ron Hetrick, “Analyzing the recent upward surge in overtime hours,” Monthly Labor Review, February 2000, pp. 30-33.

[8] Wm. McGaughey, p. 34; R. Hetrick, p. 32.

[9] Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, Basic Books, 1991; M.A. Bienefeld, Working Hours in British Industry: An Economic History, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972, chapter 2; see also: I. Waldren and R.L. Ricklefs, Environment and Population (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973), for hours of British agricultural workers which were somewhat less than those of their urban counterparts.

[10] Sebastian de Grazia, Of Time, Work and Leisure, Twentieth Century Fund, 1962; Vernon Richards, editor, Why Work? Arguments for the leisure society, Freedom Press, 1983.

[11] Joshua Freeman, Working-Class New York, The New Press, 2000, pp. 155 59; Eric Chester, “The Danish General Strike,” Anarcho-Syndicalist Review 25, Summer 1999, pp. 8-11; Moody & Sagovac, Time Out!, pp. 5-6, 37-38.

[12] Joseph Eyer and Peter Sterling, “Stress Related Mortality and Social Organization,” Review of Radical Political Economics, Spring 1977, pp. 16-30.

[13] Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work, Temple University Press, 1998; B.K. Hunnicutt, Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day, Temple University Press, 1996.

[14] IWW Education Bureau, Historical Catechism of American Unionism, Summer 1923, pp. 87, 85.

[15] Cited in “35 Hours and Not One More, With No Cut in Pay or What’s it For?” leaflet issued by the Free Workers Union of Germany (FAU-D) during the 1984 metalworkers’ strike and translated and published in Ideas & Action, Winter 1985; Columbia University study cited in “So You’re Out of a job,” published April 1933 by the Industrial Workers of the World; Juliet Schor, The Overworked American; “It’s Not In Our Genes,” Socialist Standard, February 1986, p. 26. Benjamin Franklin similarly wrote, more than 200 years ago, that a 4-hour day would be more than adequate to provide a comfortable living for all.

[16] M.A. Bienefeld, p. 159.

IWW four hour day

It has been a while since I’ve done any kind of ‘political’ writing—but a change in city and circumstances has meant a re-think of what anarchist class struggle means to me right now. My last attempts focused on political organisation, and the shift from activist, moral/ideological-based struggles to struggles based around shared material needs. While this still holds true in terms of my thinking, I would like to explore what the actual content of such a struggle involves, and draw on ideas from the current of thinking known as ‘communisation’—ideas that are really quite simple once stripped of their ultra-left prose.

All form and no play

There is a real tendency within the anarchist circles I’ve been apart of to fetishize the form of our struggle, as opposed to its content. In other words, we get so preoccupied with how we organise, and neglect thinking about what we are doing (or want to do) in any depth. Of course this is a big generalisation, but I know it to be typical because my own actions have been no different. My past thoughts and energy have often been around how struggle might be organised—from semi-closed, direct-democracy based collectives, to community assemblies, solidarity networks and anarcho-syndicalist initiatives. It’s a mindset that seems to hold to the idea: “if we just try a different form, or a variation on how we are currently doing things, then we will have more success.” Instead of a solnet, let’s try a community assembly. Instead of a community assembly, let’s try working within existing organisations.

This is understandable, especially in the context of low periods of mass struggle. When there’s not many anarchists around—let alone class ruptures on the scale needed to actually challenge capital relations—it’s probably inevitable that we focus on how we organise ourselves and our activities.

But I think this approach is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly (and for practical reasons), we don’t have the numbers to be worried about the form these small groups or networks will take. Secondly, it harbors an inward-and-outside position, in that it focuses on the activities of a small number of people while neglecting the shared material interests of our class as a whole—a sort of inverted Leninism. Finally, it relegates the content our struggles—what we do and why—to the background (or if not the background, it’s definitely not at the forefront of our thinking).

Beyond Resistance has been one space in which a change of focus has been possible. I don’t say this to focus on the form of our collective (here we go again); rather, an exploration of class struggle, material interests and capitalist patriarchy has meant what we are actually doing with our (limited) time has been important. As yet, this has not amounted to much outward action. But that’s not the point. I’m certainly not interested in building the movement—at least not in the framework I would have used in the past.

“Communism concerns as much the activity of human beings as their inter-relations”

This quote comes from Troploin’s carefully posed text, Communisation. In it, they explain what communism means to them, and in particular, how the content of struggle (or communisation, the revolution as being a communising process) should be at the forefront of any move towards revolutionary change. Here’s the quote in full:

We will focus on one point: because the vast majority of revolutionaries (Marxists and anarchists) regard communism above all as a new way of organising society, they are first of all concerned by how to find the best possible organisational forms, institutions in other words, be they fixed or adaptable, complex or extremely simple… We start from another standpoint: communism concerns as much the activity of human beings as their inter-relations. The way they relate to each other depends on what they do together. Communism organises production and has no fear of institutions, yet it is first of all neither institution nor production : it is activity

The passage relates to one of the main issues ultra-left and libertarian communists have noted with past revolutionary movements: “that a revolution is only communist if it changes all social relationships into communist relationships.” In other words, simply replacing the bosses with workers, and managing life and production as usual (albeit in more free and egalitarian ways) does not change the fundamental social relations between people. If we liberate our labour, as opposed to abolishing it, then “money, wage-labour, the enterprise as a separate unit and a value-accumulating pole, work-time as cut off from the rest of our life, production for value, private property, State agencies as mediators of social life and conflicts, the separation between learning and doing, the quest for maximum and fastest circulation of everything” remains intact. Instead, to be completely rid of capital, writes Troploin, “all of these have to be done away with and not just be run by collectives or turned over to public ownership: they have to be replaced by communal, moneyless, profitless, Stateless, forms of life.”

Endnotes elaborates on this concept further:

Those who developed the theory of communisation rejected this posing of revolution in terms of forms of organisation, and instead aimed to grasp the revolution in terms of its content. Communisation implied a rejection of the view of revolution as an event where workers take power followed by a period of transition: instead it was to be seen as a movement characterised by immediate communist measures (such as the free distribution of goods) both for their own merit, and as a way of destroying the material basis of the counter-revolution. If, after a revolution, the bourgeoisie is expropriated but workers remain workers, producing in separate enterprises, dependent on their relation to that workplace for their subsistence, and exchanging with other enterprises, then whether that exchange is self-organised by the workers or given central direction by a “workers’ state” means very little: the capitalist content remains, and sooner or later the distinct role or function of the capitalist will reassert itself. By contrast, the revolution as a communising movement would destroy – by ceasing to constitute and reproduce them – all capitalist categories: exchange, money, commodities, the existence of separate enterprises, the State and – most fundamentally – wage labour and the working class itself.” (Endnotes, # 2, 2010)

While these quotes might seem off topic, they actually help to frame the questions to come: if the content, or the nature of class struggle, is to take priority over its form, what should our activity in the here-and-now look like? Taking communisation and the importance of material interests into account, the question might be better re-framed as: what material interests can we struggle around that will create the space to rupture capital relations?

I want to make the point here that I do not believe the actions of myself, or my comrades, will result in social revolution. Call it cynical, but this activist mentality was jettisoned a long time ago. However this is not the same as defeatism, or to advocate idly waiting for the spontaneous ruptures of the working class to erupt. Instead, it is the realisation that the content and scale of struggle needed to challenge the capital-labour wage relation will involve activity much larger than our actions alone.

To work or not to work

So, what material interests can we struggle around that will create the space to rupture capital relations? If wage-labour (waged or unwaged), work as a separate activity of life, and the existence of a working class are central to capital’s reproduction, then it makes sense to place these at the heart of our struggles. Or more specifically, the refusal of work and anti-work struggles.

Kathi Weeks in The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, anti-work politics and postwork imaginaries notes how work can unite a range of material interests: “the category of work seems to me at once more capacious and more finely tuned than the category of class. After all, work, including its absence, is both important to and differently experienced within and across lines of class, gender, race, and nation.” She argues that as a result, “the politics of and against work has the potential to expand the terrain of class struggle to include actors well beyond that classic figure of traditional class politics, the industrial proletariat.”

As a way of struggling around these shared material interests, and to bridge the gap between a refusal of work and current work ethics, Weeks suggests two ways forward—the struggle for a guaranteed basic income, and the demand for shorter working hours without the loss of pay. Although it raises questions around how such a demand would affect those who are in reproductive or unwaged work, the second option is one I really like.

While organisng around wage increases or a minimum wage re-enforces the wage system and does nothing to question the nature of work, struggles for a shorter working day (without the loss of pay) opens up a potentially radical discussion about the nature of work itself. Not only would “a thirty-hour full-time work week without a decrease in pay would help to address some of the problems of both the underemployed and the overworked,” it also questions life as endless toil. The benefit of “focusing on these demands which I think distinguishes them from many other demands for economic reform, including the demand for a living wage is their capacity not only to improve the conditions of work but to challenge the terms of its dominance. These demands do not affirm our right to work so much as help us to secure some measure of freedom from it.” Struggling around a shorter day with no decrease in pay is “at once a demand for change and a perspective and provocation [and]  a useful reform and a conceptual frame that could generate critical thinking and public debate about the structures and ethics of work.”

The demand for a shorter working day is not a new one. We are all familiar with the struggle for the 8 hour day and the radicalisation this struggle caused. More recently, the IWW has demanded a 4 hour day for 8 hours pay.

Some will argue that slogans such as these will not feed a family on the minimum wage. When there is a vacuum in struggles around such basic (and much needed) reforms, it is indeed tempting to fill the void left by the unions and other ‘socialist’ organisations, and make reform the content of our activity. But we are not social reformers. If we are radicals in the true meaning of the word, then our activity should strike at the root of capital relations. Not only does the struggle for the minimum wage keep the wage system intact, it closes the door to the questioning of wage-labour itself—the very reason poverty wages exist in the first place. Yes, its no comfort to a hungry family, but neither is the continuation of capital relations—in the short-, medium-, or long-term.

It is also possible that the questioning of work, or more specifically, the demand for a shorter day without the loss of pay, places our organisng back on moral or ideological terrain—the very terrain BR has questioned in the past. The key would be to match the demand, which many will consider utopian, with the concrete, lived experiences of work—our shared material interests.

Anti-work struggles via the demand for a shorter working day. Utopian babble or the way forward? At the very least, it is a discussion worth having. And one not based on form.