Barbara Madeloni Worker's Rights

Whatever Happened to ‘Eight Hours for What You Will’?

This year's high-profile strikes and post-pandemic work conditions expose the long hours and circumstances that many workers face.
Strikes and the pandemic are exposing how many of us, from Frito-Lay and Nabisco factories to movie sets, are working 12-hour shifts, sometimes for many days in a row. Photo: Topeka Frito-Lay Union Members Appreciation Page

By Barbara Madeloni / Labor Notes

When Frank Carrico talks about why he and his co-workers at the Heaven Hill distillery went on strike, he talks about family. “I missed out on my kids’ activities” because of forced weekend shifts, he says. “I missed out on a lot, and I don’t want the young people coming behind me to have that happen to them.”

When we spoke, the distillery workers had just come off a six-week strike demanding to maintain a 40-hour week, Monday-Friday, with overtime pay beyond that.

Workers at Frito-Lay struck this summer to end “suicide shifts”: back-to-back 12-hour shifts with just eight hours’ break in between. More time between extra-long shifts was also among the demands that led film and TV crew members to authorize a strike. Textile workers in Italy struck to end 84-hour work weeks (and won big).

A popular meme on social media reminds us, “Got a weekend? Thank the unions!” But many workers, union or not, have no weekend—and certainly don’t have what the Haymarket strikers in 1886 demanded: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”

Strikes and the pandemic are exposing how many of us, from Nabisco factories to movie sets, are working 12-hour shifts, sometimes for days in a row.

IT’S NOT WORTH IT

Those extra hours take a toll. Study after study has shown that longer work hours lead to shorter lives and higher risk of heart disease.

Longer hours also lead to narrower lives—with less time for family, play, and what you will.

Over decades of fighting, unions won the eight-hour day. And over decades of negotiating, they’ve often given it back by agreeing to overtime schemes linking increased pay to increased work.

That (combined with stagnant or falling real wage rates) leaves workers always hustling to catch up. Overtime may be “voluntary,” but it becomes necessary to make ends meet—or too tempting to pass up.

One former teacher union president told me he had to demand that union staff not offer time for money in negotiations. “Union reps just wanted to get the percentage increase,” he said. “But we wanted control of our work day.”

FINES DON’T DETER

When it’s a tradeoff between time and money, the boss knows that more time—even if it’s paid double—means more profit. Overtime is still cheaper than paying benefits for new hires.

Film and TV crews won an agreement where management now has to pay extra fines for long hours or short turnarounds. But while a fine may be meant as a deterrent, management’s calculation says, “I make enough money off of your time to pay that fine.” Letter carriers and UPS drivers know how this routine goes—stewards grieve, management pays, repeat next week.

Once you’ve traded time for money, the boss will come after the money too.

Nabisco management was looking to take back weekend premiums and overtime pay after eight hours. They wanted an Alternative Work Schedule, where everyone works 12-hour days, including weekends, at the regular pay.

The final agreement creates a two-tier schedule. Current workers maintain their Monday-Friday week, but the Awful Work Schedule applies to new hires.

A FALSE CHOICE

Plenty of workers may want the overtime pay and what it allows them to buy. But we’ve accepted a false choice: you get time or money, but not both.

Our lives end up circumscribed by the demands of work. Our imagination for “what you will” dwindles down to sleep and a quick bite to eat.

Instead of fighting within the frame the bosses give us, we should fight for the life we can create beyond that frame. A life that allows us to know ourselves as more than workers—as family members, friends, political allies, athletes, artists, musicians, or even laze-abouts.

The boss knows it: your time is the most precious commodity there is.

Barbara Madeloni

Barbara Madeloni is Education Coordinator at Labor Notes and a former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.barbara@labornotes.org

3 comments

  1. My IWW Grandfather said –

    “Working People died fighting for an 8 hour work day and the Rich have been trying to take it away ever since.”

  2. “Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at most, time’s carcass.” (Marx)

    Time is money for those who follow the capitalist reduction of living to quantitative conditions of productivity and profit, epitomized by the scientific management Frederick Taylor introduced with such measures of control over the equipment of labor power as time-motion discipline, and since extended to virtually all society as well as workplaces, especially with the 24/7 digitization of human existence, by capitalism’s relentless commodification of living. The qualitative dimensions of living, of being in time when we are not enslaved as ‘free labor’ to others’ wills and purchase power upon all living, re-creating and learning and loving and celebrating and music and eating and dancing – and so much more – all this is expecting too much for ourselves.

    Maybe it’s really expecting too much of ourselves. There’s a lot of history since Haymarket, especially here in the fading center of empire. Where before the eight-hour day was reform on the way to revolution in democratizing both the economy and social relations, we’re suffering from generations of business unionism and consumer culture. We’ve traded our time for money, or crumbs, and militant class consciousness for bargaining with predators.

    To roughly paraphrase celebrity billionaire Buffett, damn straight there’s a class war, and we bloodsuckers are winning it, because you zombies don’t have a clue what’s going on, and down. Take the ‘pandemic’ as a case in point.

    Capital gains value in production by increasing work time (especially after downsizing), decreasing work time while increasing the intensification of work (triple-time the treadmill), and assimilating labor to technological advances in production. It’s the latter’s hyper-mechanization of labor, and life, which is taking a quantum leap into a new (ab)normal level of automation and roboticization with the covid coup.

    We are being re-equipped for assimilation into the Great Reset and 4th Industrial Revolution (of Capital) by means of total interconnectivity in the cloud, the Borg, the metaverse, the megamachine. Our biodigital incorporation into the internet of things, and bodies as things, is underway as implanted nanotech rolls out in furtive conjunction with fifth generation cellular networks (5G)*.

    In this paradigm shift to a completely synthetic world, humans have become expendable on the earth to which the “masters of mankind” (Adam Smith) lay final claim. Once this last class war is done, the many who have slaved for these monsters will have reached their expiration date with the injection agenda of ‘public health’ (which as we know from history has always been a top priority for ruling psychopaths). Our kind will no longer even be a memory in the far fewer cyborgs who have replaced us, who will have nothing, be nothing, but be happy (medication time!, time for your soma!).

    “There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.”
    -Aldous Huxley

    *Sabotage! Rebels in France attack 5G
    http://winteroak.org.uk/2021/12/28/the-acorn-70/#1

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