The battle for time

By Roberta Wood

“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what we will!” was the slogan of the 340,000 workers who marched in cities across the U.S. on May 1, 1886, calling for the eight-hour day.

Since the dawn of capitalism up until today, workers have been fighting for their time. To workers, our time is our lives. To employers, our time is their money.

The fight for time is about exploitation

In early agricultural societies, the level of productivity was so low that humans had to work all day just to produce enough to sustain their own families. Exploitation was obvious: the feudal lord demanded a percentage of each peasant’s crop. In effect, the serf might work five days for himself and one for the overlord. The seventh day was set aside for rest. The Fourth of the Ten Commandments, to honor the Sabbath, is the world’s first labor contract limiting hours of work.

Based on the scientific and technological achievements of past generations, a worker today produces goods and services of far more value than are needed to sustain his or her family. But the exploitation is harder to see. Today’s workers produce for a global market, not for their own consumption. They purchase what they need to live and raise their kids from that global market.

U.S. agriculture is a good example of this. Only 3 million workers, or less than 2 percent of the U.S. work force, produce the corn, wheat, grain, soybeans, vegetables and fruit that feed our country’s 290 million people — with a lot extra to export. Farm workers in Immokalee, Fla., who pick the tomatoes used by Taco Bell, recently won a dramatic victory. A four-year struggle forced the fast food giant to nearly double their pay, from 1 to 2 cents per pound. Even allowing for overhead, 2 cents a pound is an amazingly tiny fraction of the 69 cents per pound or more that consumers pay for those same tomatoes in the supermarket.

Marxist economists estimate that U.S. workers produce enough value to sustain themselves and their families in the first two hours of work every day. The rest stays in the hands of the employers. The difference between the value workers produce and what is compensated is what is filling billionaire’s bank vaults.

Capitalists steal workers’ time to boost profits

As capitalists seek every avenue to increase profits, the push is on today in a hundred ways, small and large, to lengthen the hours of work. The squeeze is on when it comes to workers’ time and no minute in a worker’s day is safe.

Ten minutes in the bathroom is 10 minutes you could have been plugged in to the profit machine, so the pressure is on to reduce toilet breaks. Call center workers report that their computers monitor the time between keystrokes to produce records of their personal activity for supervisors to audit.

Indeed, gains won in the 20th century are being reversed in the 21st. In California, Gov. Schwarzenegger seeks to “terminate” the state law requiring a half hour lunch break, while in Chicago, Mayor Daley has done away with city workers’ coffee breaks.

Corporate chiselers have rolled together sick time, vacation time and holidays and replaced them with a drastically reduced total of “PTO” — paid time off — days. Standards for maternity leave have been reduced from two months before delivery and three months after to a period starting on the day of birth and ending a few weeks later. The Family Medical Leave Act, passed only in 1993, which allows unpaid time for caring for sick family members and newborns, is on the Bush administration hit list.

President Bush’s “Labor” Department eliminated the requirement to pay overtime after 40 hours work for millions of workers, gutting the Fair Labor Standards Act, in place since 1938. Other big business initiatives on the Bush agenda include having people work extra hours without pay, but for “comp” time instead (in other words, you work for nothing and in exchange get time off at the employer’s convenience).

Perhaps the biggest threat to workers’ time is the assault on Social Security. Bush proposes raising the retirement age, which would result in America’s working class putting in entire years of extra work.

There are other new wrinkles on extending the hours of work. It is now the accepted norm that two wage earners are needed to keep the family afloat; in many situations, to pay the family’s bills teenagers also put in long hours before, after or instead of going to school. So instead of 40 hours a week supporting a family, the capitalist class gets 80 or more.

Part-time work is everywhere, but it doesn’t necessarily mean fewer hours on the job. More often it’s an excuse to pay lower wages. Many folks are working two and three “part time” jobs just to make ends meet. And for many workers, modern technology like cell phones and laptops doesn’t mean more freedom, but instead the obligation to work additional hours from home.

We work to live, not live to work

The flip side of obscene profits and billionaires with ownings greater than entire countries is a working class exhausted, stressed out and struggling not only for the resources, but the time to sustain a family. Strikers from the Staley corn syrup plant in downstate Illinois struck in response to their employer’s demand to work them unlimited overtime. “We want to work to live, not live to work,” they chanted on their picket line.

“Time for working-class families is becoming an emergency,” said Bishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of the Chicago Archdiocese. “Families need time to be together.”

Workers need time to enjoy the fruits of their labor, to help kids with their homework. We need time to go to concerts or the beach, to buy groceries and cook dinner, to play ball or watch someone else do it. We need time for quiet time alone, time to enjoy nature, time to hang out. “Time helps people to become human, to develop their divine side,” said Bishop Garcia-Siller. “When you take away the time, we are stealing life.”

Roberta Wood ( is the People’s Weekly World labor editor. Wadi’h Halabi contributed to this article.

May Day: Made in the USA

By William J. Adelman

Probably no single event has influenced the history of labor in the United States, and even the world, more than the Chicago Haymarket affair. It all began with a simple rally on May 4, 1886, but the consequences are still being felt today.

In the summer of 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, the predecessor of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), set May 1, 1886, to kick off a nationwide movement for the eight-hour day.

Eight-hour day

The eight-hour day movement caught workers’ imagination. Everywhere slogans were heard like, “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Sleep, Eight Hours for What We Will!” or “Shortening the Hours Increases the Pay.”

In 1886, on May Day, 340,000 workers in 12,000 factories across the country lay down their tools. Chicago, with its strong labor movement, had the nation’s largest demonstration, according to reports, with 80,000 people marching up Michigan Avenue arm-in-arm, singing and carrying the banners of their unions. The unions most strongly represented were the building trades. This solidarity shocked some employers, who feared a workers’ revolution, while others quickly signed agreements for shorter hours at the same pay.

Albert and Lucy Parsons

Two of the organizers of these demonstrations were Lucy and Albert Parsons. The beautiful and talented Lucy had been born a slave in Texas about 1853. Her heritage was African American, Native American and Mexican. She worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War.

After her marriage to Albert, they moved to Chicago where she turned her attention to writing and organizing women sewing workers. Albert was a printer, a member of the Knights of Labor, editor of the labor paper The Alarm, and one of the founders of the Chicago Trades and Labor Assembly.

On Sunday, May 2, Albert went to Ohio to organize rallies there, while Lucy and others staged another peaceful march of 35,000.

But on May 3, the peaceful scene turned violent when the Chicago police attacked and killed picketing workers at the McCormick Reaper Plant at Western and Blue Island Avenues. This attack by police sparked a protest meeting, planned for Haymarket Square on the evening of May 4.

While the May 1 events had been well planned, the events of the evening of May 4 were not. Most of the speakers failed to appear.

Instead of starting at 7:30, the meeting was delayed for about an hour. Instead of the expected 20,000 people, fewer than 2,500 attended.

Two substitute speakers ran over to Haymarket Square at the last minute. They had been attending a meeting of sewing workers organized by Lucy Parsons and her fellow organizer, Lizzie Holmes. The last-minute speakers were Albert Parsons, just returned from Ohio, and an English-born Methodist lay preacher who worked with the labor movement, Samuel Fielden.

Police attack meeting

The Haymarket meeting was almost over and only about 200 people remained when 176 policemen carrying Winchester repeater rifles attacked. Even Lucy and Albert Parsons had left because it was beginning to rain.

Fielden was speaking when someone, unknown to this day, threw the first dynamite bomb ever used in peacetime in the history of the United States. The police officers panicked, and, in the darkness, many shot at their own men. Eventually, seven policemen died, only one directly accountable to the bomb. Four workers were also killed, but few textbooks bother to mention this fact.

Martial law declared

The next day the federal government declared martial law throughout the nation. Anti-labor governments around the world used the Chicago incident to crush local union movements.

In Chicago, police without warrants rounded up labor leaders, searched houses and closed down union newspapers.

Eventually eight men, representing a cross-section of the labor movement, were selected to be tried. Among them were Fielden, Parsons and a young carpenter named Louis Lingg, who was accused of throwing the bomb, although he had witnesses proving he was over a mile away at the time.

The two-month trial ranks as one of the most notorious in American history. The Chicago Tribune even offered to pay money to the jury if it found the eight men guilty.

Trials ends in death penalty

During the trial, Albert Parsons was asked about his philosophy of government and he said the following: “I am an anarchist. … What is socialism, or anarchism? Briefly stated, it is the right of the toilers to the free and equal use of the tools of production and the right of the producers to their product. That is socialism.”

On Aug. 20, 1886, the jury reported its verdict of guilty, applying the death penalty by hanging for seven of the Haymarket Eight, and 15 years of hard labor for the final defendant.

On Nov. 10, the day before the executions, AFL President Samuel Gompers came from Washington to appeal to Illinois Gov. Richard Oglesby for the last time. The national and worldwide pressures did finally force the governor to change the sentences of Fielden and Michael Schwab to life imprisonment.

On the morning of Nov. 10, Lingg was found in his cell, his head half blown away by a dynamite cap. Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Albert Parsons and August Spies were hanged on Nov. 11, 1887.

In June 1893, Gov. John P. Altgeld pardoned the three men still alive and condemned the entire judicial system that had allowed this travesty.

The real issues of the Haymarket affair were freedom of speech and the press, the rights to free assembly and a fair trial by a jury of peers, as well as the right of workers to organize and fight for reforms.

Many of those who were tried were not even at the Haymarket meeting, but were arrested simply because they were union organizers.

International Labor Day

In 1889, the International Labor Congress, meeting in Paris, adopted May Day as International Labor Day in memory of the Haymarket martyrs. Today, in almost every major industrial country, except the U.S., May Day is Labor Day.

For example, in 1925 in the town of Matehuala, on the main highway between Monterrey and Mexico City, the trade unions of the area unveiled in the Plaza de Chicago a monument to the “Martyrs of Chicago.” Each May Day, workers from surrounding towns come here on the “Day of the Martyrs of Chicago,” which is what May Day is called in Mexico.

Excerpted from “The Day Will Come … Stories of the Haymarket Martyrs,” and “Haymarket Revisited,” both available from the Illinois Labor History Society (

Chicago labor reclaims May Day

By Terrie Albano

CHICAGO — “Attention Working Families” is the leaflet heading. On the bottom it reads, “All workers welcome — all workers unite!” In between are these words: “May Day Celebration — Reclaiming the original Labor Day in Chicago at the site of the new Haymarket Memorial.”

That’s the announcement for the May Day event — sponsored by the Chicago Federation of Labor and other labor groups — here in the city of its birth.

“It’s a forgotten holiday for workers here. But the roots are so deep in Chicago. Such a celebration is long overdue,” Jeff Weiss, CFL director of communications, told the World.

Because May Day is celebrated all over the world, whenever trade unionists from other countries would come to Chicago, the first thing they would ask to see was the Haymarket site. Until last September, the only commemoration at the desolate site was a small plaque. CFL President Dennis Gannon said local trade unionists felt embarrassed and worked to get a new memorial statue placed on the site.

“After 119 years of silence on May Day in our city, the Chicago labor community will begin a new chapter, paying tribute to the fallen heroes of Haymarket and continuing the martyrs’ tradition of promoting and fighting for social justice in the workplace,” the CFL press statement said.

“Hopefully, this will spark a national movement for labor to reclaim May Day. This rally is a good start,” Weiss said.