Time as a Democracy and Socialist Movement Issue
Working-class and pro-working-class socialists and left anarchists have long fought for shorter working hours (with no reductions in pay) for some very good radically democratic reasons. It isn't just that workers' everyday lives and collective marketplace and workplace bargaining power are enhanced when they are freed from the scourge of over-work and when working hours are spread more evenly across the workforce. Beyond these real and meaningful gains, rank-and-file socialists and left anarchists have long supported decent working hours so that workers can have enough time to develop tastes and build knowledge and organizations to fight for a world beyond the rule of capitalism, the profit- and accumulation-addicted system that, in Karl Marx's famous 1,848 words, "resolve[s] personal worth into exchange value" and "le[aves] no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment.'"
During the late 1860s, the U.S. machinist and Eight Hour Day activist Ira Steward did not advocate a shorter work day as an end in-itself. "For him," the Socialist Appeal explained in 1939, "it was the focal point for an attack on the whole system of capitalist society." Steward's movement was meant to culminate in worker-self-managed socialism.
The founders of the American labor movement understood time and working hours as democracy issues. How, they asked, during their early struggles for a 10-Hour Day, were wage earners supposed to participate in the popular democracy purportedly introduced by the American Revolution when they were stuck at workbenches and in factories for endless stretches of time, too exhausted to do anything else but try to recover off the job?
For Marx, writing his magnum opus around the time Steward's Eight Hour League emerged in New England, the goal of popular and working-class struggle was to achieve the revolutionary and post-capitalist "realm of freedom," which "begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases." For Marx, "freedom" can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind force of Nature, and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature."
Marx's passage on the "true realm of freedom" ended with the following short sentence: "The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite." (Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole [New York: International, 1967], p. 820).
Shorter Hours to "Boost Productivity and Worker Loyalty"
Things are a little different with the "democratic socialist" Bernie Sanders, who goes out of his way to deny any allegiance to "radical ideas." He has a much less (well) radical and democratic take on American workers' need for shorter hours. Look at this passage from his recently published book Bernie Sanders' Guide to Political Revolution:
"Millions of Americans are overworked, underpaid, and under enormous stress. Some are working two or three jobs to try to care for their families. Research shows that vacations reduce stress, strengthen family relationships, increase productivity, and even prevent illness. But 41 percent of workers didn't take one day of vacation in 2015... Americans are working more hours than the people of any major developed country...They need time to rest and recuperate, travel the country, visit loved ones, or simply spend time at home with their families...In my view we need legislation to require employers to provide at least ten days of paid vacation to workers in this country every year. This is not a radical idea. It's already being done in almost every country in the world. This would not only demonstrate our national commitment to family values but also make good economic sense. Studies show that paid-vacation policies boost productivity and worker loyalty." (pp. 23-24, emphasis added).
It's good to see Bernie raising the all-too neglected issue of working hours (thank you, Senator), but this selection from his new book is quite conservative. Sanders fails to mention that workers need time to undertake informed and collective popular resistance and class struggle and to resist and indeed (sorry to get so radical) overthrow the system that has turned the United States into an abject plutocracy while putting livable ecology at grave peril. Then Sanders goes out of his way to describe his modest call for 10 days (how about 40?) paid vacation "not a radical idea" and -- the real kicker -- says that paid vacations would be great because they would "boost productivity and worker loyalty."
"Boost productivity" for whose benefit, Senator? Under capitalism, in a largely de-unionized society like the U.S., that would be primarily for the advantage of capitalist employers, as Sanders surely knows.
"Worker loyalty" to whom? To the working-class and its struggle to build unions, democracy, and social movements and to reach "the true realm of freedom" as self-determining "associated producers" and "socialized" men and women enjoying conditions favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature...?
No. Bernie obviously means loyalty to their capitalist employers -- a curious thing for a "socialist" to want to enhance. If he was honest, the Bernie would replace the phrase "worker loyalty" with the old anti-union "welfare capitalist," corporate-paternalist term "company loyalty" (sometimes also termed "plant loyalty").
What's Wrong with Radical Ideas?