1920s >> 1926 >> no-257-january-1926

The shorter working day


During the last hundred years there has been in this country a marked and more or less continuous tendency for hours of work to become fewer. The causes are many and various and the two which receive most attention—trade union organisation and legal restriction—are by no means the only ones of importance. The part played by the technical developments of industry is frequently forgotten as are also the motives which have induced the ruling class to pass their laws limiting hours of employment. As power has throughout the period remained in the hands of members of the employing class, it is plain that no action really damaging to their class interests would be taken by them in the House of Commons; and similarly as controllers of industry they have been well able to adapt themselves to the slightly modified conditions resulting from the existence of Trade Unions as a permanent factor, without loss of profits in the long run.

Shorter hours are, of course, of benefit to the working class, but they have not—in capitalist society—proved an unmixed blessing. Generally speaking, reductions in hours have not been allowed to mean a corresponding reduction in output. The workers have been able and have been compelled to work harder during the smaller number of hours. Not infrequently they have been induced to produce more in the shorter than in the longer working day. They have exchanged exhaustion in seven hours for exhaustion in eight or nine hours and profits have not suffered. Certain outstanding figures like Cadbury and Ford have demonstrated that a six or even five hour day can be made not only a business proposition but more profitable still, but it must be remembered that their methods are dependent on the actual processes of the industries in question as well as on many outside factors not directly controllable by the individual employer. Where the social and educational level and the level of wages are abnormally low, as in Bombay, long hours and degraded conditions are still the rule. Big profits are, from the owners’ point of view, a sufficient justification and a reason for leaving “well” alone. Immigrant labourers still work their twelve hours a day for seven days a week in the oil and steel industries of America and produce profits which are fabulous. A falling off in the supply of cheap labour, a change in the methods of production making it cheaper to use delicate machinery needing skilled and educated workers; these and many other factors may lead to a new organisation based on a shorter working day in these industries. If and when that occurs we can be certain that, as has happened so often in the past, the employers will make a virtue of necessity and parade “philanthropy” as the motive. Up to the thirties of last century it was the practice in most of the coal areas for women to be employed carrying coal in baskets up to the surface. Occasional protests went unheard until the invention of a wire cable made it for the first time cheaper to haul the coal mechanically. The employment of women was then forbidden by Parliament amidst a flood of mutual congratulations among the mine proprietors. What a happy world this is for property owners when benevolence can be exercised not only at no cost, but in combination with increased receipts of good hard cash !

It is difficult for a ruling class not to view other folks’ welfare through the rose-tinted spectacles of their own prosperity. We need not be surprised then to find the spokesmen of our masters filled with comfort at the thought of what they believe to be a continued progress in the conditions of our lives. We need not, however, accept unquestioningly their optimistic views or the subject of our hours of work and our holidays.

In spite of changes for the better which admittedly have been made, two important facts need to be weighed on the other side of the scale. The first is that what has been given with one hand has often been taken away with the other, and the second is that at no time, early or late in the history of modern capitalist society, will our conditions compare with those of the more leisurely system out of which capitalism grew.

For the workers factory production meant the evil of frantic and unceasing labour for long hours such as would have seemed intolerable to an independent craftsman accustomed to choose his own times for work and rest. The new moneyed class, intoxicated by the wonderful opportunities of amassing fortunes, usually had no inclination themselves to make their money the means to a life of leisure and culture. To their evangelical conception money-making was man’s first duty and the earthly life not a place for play. How much less, then, were they disposed to let the need of the workers for rest and recreation stand between them and their profits.

In spite, therefore, of more recent tendencies, we are, generally speaking, worse off than before the advent of industrial capitalism ; and the more highly developed countries are worse off than the more backward ones.

London, we find, has fewer statutory holidays than any other city in the world— 6 against 10 in New York and 12 in Australia and Germany. (“Bank and Public Holidays.” Guaranty Trust Coy.) The really marked difference shows itself, as we would expect, in a comparison with those countries (mainly Catholic) which have been less influenced by industrialism. When and where the Catholic Church and the Feudal organisation to which it was so well adapted, survived the attacks of capitalism, the numerous Church holidays have retained their traditional hold. Thus Poland, in spite of reductions in 1924, still has 34 holidays, as does also Greece. Jugoslavia, more backward still, has no fewer than 40 public holidays each year. With the 52 Sundays the fortunate workers have approximated one day off in four. As these countries come increasingly into the sphere of factory production for the world’s markets, the capitalist class will find so much leisure for the workers incompatible with factory “discipline” and the fulfilment of contracts. More and more sacrifices will be called for in order that profits may not suffer. “Bolshevik” Russia’s progress from semi-feudalism to Capitalism has been marked by the same abolition of the holidays formerly kept in accordance with the customs of the Church.

What the workers enjoyed in the Middle Ages can be seen from the following.

Mr. G. Townsend Warner says of the 15th and 16th centuries (“Tillage, Trade and Invention,” p. 71):—

“Besides Sundays, all Saints’ days and feasts of the Church, were days on which work was forbidden, and on the eve of these holidays only half-a-day’s work was done. Very likely the working man’s year was not more than 280 days; perhaps even less.”

As for hours of work he says (p. 113) :—

“Dinner was at one, and few did any work after it; but all, whether artisan or merchant, shopkeeper or Government official, began early, often at 5 or 6 in the morning . . . .”

Thorold Rogers (“Six Centuries of Work and Wages,” p. 542) gives the average working day in the 15th and 16th centuries as “one of 8 hours’ work,” and points out that the worker who in 1881 was “demanding an eight hours’ day in the building trades is simply striving to recover what his ancestor worked four or five centuries ago.” It is worth noting that according to Mr. Leone Levi, whose opinion Rogers quotes (p. 543) : ” the average amount of hours in the building trade . . . was 55″ in 1867. Such is progress!

Conditions in Germany would appear to have been even better than those in this country.

Belfort Bax, in summing up the social status of the worker about the year 1500. says :—

“In some cases the workman had weekly gratuities under the name of “bathing money,” and in this connection it may be noticed that a holiday for the purpose of bathing once a fortnight, once a week, or even oftener, as the case might be, was stipulated for by the Guilds, and generally recognised as a legitimate demand” (German Society at the close of the Middle Ages, page 212).

It is interesting to know what took place before capitalism came into being, but this is as nothing compared with the opportunities of leisure that capitalist development has now made possible. Capitalism, while robbing the workers of the leisure they had, has created powers of production which, if properly utilised, would enable us to work less than half the time we do now. The census of production is our evidence for this assertion, in disclosing how many fit persons are either engaged in useless or wasteful occupations only necessary under this system, or are, like so many of the members of the propertied class, entirely idle.

The five million persons belonging to the master class produce nothing. If these contributed workers in the same ratio as rest of the population, there would be another 2,000,000 workers available for production.

The number of men removed from useful labour by the coercive forces are roughly : the army, 250,000; the navy and air force, 130,000; police and prison’ staffs, 70,000; while there are more than 60,000 clergymen chasing the shadow instead of wrestling with the substance.

These groups of people frittering away their energies either from choice or compulsion, total over 2½ millions in addition to the unemployed.

But this is not all. According to the census returns for 1921, 81,347 commercial travellers were scouring the country in England and Wales alone, with no better object than to snatch trade from rivals; and 539,686 male and 426,475 female clerks and typists were toiling, to a great extent uselessly, in business offices. The streets teem with canvassers^ and agents and door-to-door distributors. A dozen bakers’ carts chase each other over the same ground ; a dozen butchers’ carts and milk carts do the same.

Over 1½ million persons (excluding clerks) are employed in Commerce, Finance and Insurance.

These millions who neither toil nor spin, are waited upon by thousands upon thousands of servants and flunkeys, who add nothing to the national wealth. The railways call for numerous booking-clerks to serve out tickets, and collectors to punch them and collect them. The ‘buses and trams are overrun with spying inspectors.

The number of people in England and Wales engaged in 1921 in the building and allied trades; mining and quarrying; metal, engineering and shipbuilding; textile, tailoring, boot and shoe trades, food, drink and tobacco; electrical apparatus making and fitting, etc. ; wood and furniture trades; and agriculture, was only 7,615,198—and these figures included all persons over 12, and employers as well as the unemployed.

Nearly the whole of the wealth of the country is produced by the people engaged in these trades, whose numbers equalled about half the male population of the country between the ages of 16 and 60, at the time the figures were taken. So, after balancing the wealth producers in other trades, and those engaged in transport, against the unemployed and employers in these, it seems reasonable to claim that the whole of the nation’s wealth can be produced by the male population between 16 and 60 years of age working half the time they do now.

Another striking illustration of the productive powers of the working class is offered by the experience of the war. In 1917 and 1918, no less than four million fit men were in the forces. Only 1,600,000 additional women workers were employed in industry, yet it was possible to maintain the supply of essential goods and services, and at the same time produce in colossal quantities the weapons of destruction for British and Allied armies. Our “productive powers actually increased.” (“Triumph of Nationalisation,” p. 137.)

These powers of production exist and could rapidly be improved upon but for capitalist private ownership. Great possibilities of leisure are out of your reach only from this same cause. They will come within your reach only after the winning of Socialism, and to this end we invite your help and co-operation in spreading the knowledge of Socialist Principles.


(Socialist Standard, January 1926)

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