Springingtiger's Blog

The Eight Hour Day – reflections on Party Conference season.

The Eight Hour Day

There is a slogan (originated by Robert Owen in 1817) from the campaign to secure the eight hour working day which said, “We require Eight hours for work, Eight hours for our own instruction and Eight hours for repose.” The idea was that eight hours each day should provide a worker (I almost typed workman because back then it was largely men working to provide for their wives and families, this is relevent.) with an adequate income to pay for all their needs: accommodation, food, clothes, and other charges, hopefully with a little over for saving or enjoyment.

Karl Marx recognised that the extension of the working day was counter-productive because it produced a “deterioration of human labour power by robbing it of its normal moral and physical conditions of development and activity, but also produces the premature exhaustion and death of this labour power itself.” (Capital). Thus even in capitalist society overworking employees is wasteful. In 1866 the International Workingmen’s Association proposed “eight hours as the legal limit of the working day”. In 1884 Tom Mann of the Social Democratic Federation set up the ‘Eight Hour League’ and persuaded the TUC to adopt the eight hour day as a goal. In the UK today the European Working Time Directives give us the right to limit our working week to forty-eight hours, but any worker can opt out and is too often under pressure to do so.

Working Tax Credits were designed to top up workers’ wages when they fell short of the amount needed to provide for a worker’s needs. If a worker receives enough upon which to live they have a reduced incentive to work extra hours. The abolition of Working Tax Credits as Priti Patel alleged on Question Time is to give the poor the flexibility to work more hours to meet their needs. The truth is that cutting families’ income below what they need actually forces them to work excess hours regardless of the detrimental effects on their health and the quality of their work.

The undermining of the eight hour day began long ago by changing the perception of a worker’s needs. Capitalists often refer to the cost of bread and other staples as a proportion of wages to show that workers’ wages are better now than in previous generations. However these same capitalists have re-engineered the perception of what is necessary to render wages inadequate and force working families to work more hours. True we don’t need television or internet to fill our bellies, but we do need them to function fully in today’s society. Do we need cars? Perhaps not in London and other cities with good public transport, but in many places the services provided by privatised public transport are so inadequate that a car is no longer a luxury, but essential. When I was a boy foreign holidays were a rarity, but the capitalist media have generated a perception that they are a necessity and people will work long hours to pay off the cost of them sooner than take a bus for a week in a caravan in Burnt Island or a tent on Lomond’s side.

Now in these days of political austerity the definition of poverty, and the expectations of the workers have become a problem to the government. In order to remove families from poverty without improving the conditions under which they live the Tories are going to redefine poverty so that fewer people will fall under the definition. Having a job is, indeed, better than benefits, but not when it does not provide sufficient income on which to live. In the Job Centres (which no longer provide assistance to find work) there are banners that say “Work more hours, earn more money” (we are not talking overtime here!). The principle of a ‘fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay is oot the windae (as we say in Republican Scotland). Few working families can manage on one wage, the figures that say employment is up disguise how many of those jobs are part time, second jobs, zero hours contracts, enforced self employment, all inadequate to meet the workers’ needs.

Margaret Thatcher sought to make Britain an island of home owners and now a third of the publically owned houses she enabled tennants to buy are in the hands of landlords to be rented out for profit. Why then do the Tories want to, once again, push people into home ownership? Because it increases indebtedness while restricting mobility, and so binds people to employers. A worker who rents his home is free to move on whenever an opportunity presents itself, but once a person has a mortgage his mobility is made more difficult. To support the home owning economy banks lend against the purchased property, it’s a low risk strategy homes can be repossessed and should profligate lending expose a bank to possible collapse they know they will be rescued at the taxpayers’ expense. Worse still any assets bought by the taxpayer will later be sold back at a discount to the class responsible for the policies and mismanagement that caused the problem. Everyone wins apart from the workers and the poor.

It is true that the poverty of today looks different from that of the turn of the last century and to base it entirely on a relationship to a median wage may be over simplistic, but to redefine it to include things like access to free education is to fail to take into account our changed society. However while we we are on the subject of education perhaps we should look at the purpose of education. While the Tory school’s like Eton (subsidised as charities with taxpayers’ money) exist to train the next generation of rulers, unsubsidised state education has two primary purposes. The first is to provide, at the expense of taxpayers, child care to free parents, particularly women to work during the six hours of the school day. The second is to educate workers’ children sufficiently to work in employment and serve society. However should those workers’ children seek to enter the upper echelons of Society by furthering their education in University they come up against the barrier of tuition fees and, instead of the (means tested) grant we enjoyed in my youth, they are compelled to run up debts in order to feed and clothe themselves. An employee with a burden of debt is a compliant worker and a partially educated worker to a state curriculum is unlikely to be aware of the dangerous ideas that lead to demands for workers’ rights.

Where does the ordinary worker get his ideas? From the television and the papers, owned and run by capitalists, who feed him a constant diet of propaganda. The socialists at the turn of the last century had to set up their own papers like the IRSP’s ‘The Worker’s Republic’, the ILP’s ‘Labour Leader or Keir Hardie’s ‘The Miner’ to counter the lies of the mainstream media. These workers’ papers faced all sorts of problems from violence and legal suppression to distribution difficulties and just making ends meet. Much of the distribution took place at public meetings and rallies, not dissimilar from thos of the Corbyn campaign and equally villified by the establishment. What Corbyn had that Connolly did not was supporters with access to the internet and social media. Today the internet enables ordinary people to research the truth of the stories propagated by the establishment media. It also enables activists to reach out to people with an alternative version of events. This is why the establishment is so desperate to seize control of the internet, ISIL exists as an excuse to censor the communications of all the opponents of the capitalist establishment. The problem the Tories have is that anything they put on the internet is merely more of the same, adds nothing to their conventional organs of propaganda and is easily refuted by a few minutes research, whereas it provides an opportunity for ordinary people to counter their arguments greater than (but not instead of) meetings and print.

Today the lies of the capitalist establishment stand exposed and in the countries of the UK more people than ever are awake to the injustices being perpetrated upon the people by a small elite and their dupes. It is four years until this government with its majority of just twelve must put itself up for election, in the meantime we should be doing what we can to render that small majority useless and making it impossible for them to enact any laws they manage to pass. Their cuts mean that they do not have the resources to handle a population determined to resist. To quell the miners they deployed police and soldiers, today they have fewer of both than they had of either then. We may not have a mass socialist party in Britain as such, however in Scotland we have the SNP, not a socialist party, but a party hoaching with socialists that may yet become one and a focus for opposition to rule by England. South of the border we have Corbyn’s revivified Labour Party, like the SNP not a socialist party, but again, a party hoaching with socialists and backed by its social movement Momentum. The opportunity has arisen, as never before in the last half century, of rebuilding the political institutions of the British isles on popular democratic foundations, but it means we must put our doctrinal quarrels behind us and join together to break the hold of capitalism on the structures and institutions of these islands.


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