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Image: An 1886 engraving of the Haymarket massacre.

April 10, 2023

May Day and the Movement for Shorter Working Hours

International Workers’ Day is an occasion to build solidarity and rethink political economy.

Americans celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday of September, but for much of the world, the cause of organized labor is celebrated on May 1, International Workers’ Day. The discrepancy is ironic because the history of May Day is closely bound up with the U.S. labor movement’s efforts to secure the eight-hour day

Although the first official May Day took place in 1890 following a call by the Second International for, in the words of historian Eric Hobsbawm, “a simultaneous international workers’ demonstration in favor of a law to limit the working day to eight hours,” it is often associated with the Haymarket affair, a demonstration for shorter hours that occurred in Chicago on May 4, 1886. The peaceful protest turned violent when someone threw a bomb into the ranks of the police officers who were there to disperse the crowd, leading to a deadly exchange of gunfire. Eight anarchists—the “Haymarket Martyrs”—were charged with conspiracy, although only two had been at the rally and none was suspected of throwing the bomb; seven were sentenced to death, of whom four were ultimately executed. 

It’s no surprise that International Workers’ Day arose from protests against long hours of work. As economist Mike Konczal explains in a contribution to BR’s special project “Rethinking Political Economy,” shorter hours were one of the primary demands of organizing workers during the growth of industrial capitalism. Forming trade unions and other associations to further their cause, these workers argued that freedom from overwork was essential for physical health and intellectual development, and the cornerstone of a thriving economy and democratic culture. “Shorter working hours contribute to freedom by creating the time and cultural space necessary for civil society to thrive,” Konczal concludes. “In our own era, where we feel that we have no control over our working hours, this is a vision of freedom worth recapturing.”

This vision of freedom as independence from the dictates of the market is shared by many workers today, including those whose work is criminalized, such as sex workers and undocumented immigrants. According to feminist studies scholar Heather Berg, the criminalization of sex work by the state threatens the interests of all workers insofar as it relies on forms of enclosure and surveillance intended to force people into waged work and the loss of autonomy it entails. “Fights to decriminalize sex work name the connections between sex workers and other contingent workers, gig and other informal workers as well as those whose immigration status places their labor in liminal legal territory,” Berg writes. “Sex workers’ struggle against enclosure is resistance to proletarianization itself—to being made a waged worker.”

This week’s reading list features several other contributions to the “Rethinking Political Economy” series, including Black studies scholar Charisse Burden-Stelly and political theorist Jodi Dean on how Black communist women remade class struggle; labor scholar Brishen Rogers on workplace technology as a tool of class warfare; economist Brian Callaci on how antitrust law has failed workers; sociologist Karen Levy on workplace surveillance; political scientist Adam Przeworski on reform versus revolution; and more.

 

Labor activists once understood time to be a checking mechanism on market activity. In our own era of uncontrolled working hours, this is a vision of freedom worth recapturing.
Mike Konczal

Sex workers are labor's vanguard. The left ignores them at its peril.

Heather Berg

Leaders of the left abandoned the language of transformation in the 1980s—at a cost. Can it be regained?

Adam Przeworski

Rumors of the imminent death of capitalism have often been greatly exaggerated. But that doesn’t mean we must give up on making things better.

Alyssa Battistoni

Forum

Unions are being strangled by laws that block workers from organizing, striking, and acting in solidarity. Becoming a rights-based movement is the only way to save labor.

Peter Kellman, Ed Bruno, James Gray Pope

Intrinsic to what we hate about work is that we can’t imagine life outside of it.

Madeline Lane-McKinley

Working people are forever kept on the brink of going broke. More than higher wages and better job security, a just economy requires giving them the power to choose and create their own futures.

Kevin P. Donovan

And what today’s organizers can learn from them.

Charisse Burden-Stelly, Jodi Dean
Monopoly power has certainly harmed workers, but the solution should be a wholesale rethinking of economic policy—not an embrace of perfectly competitive markets.
Brian Callaci

Both regulators and employers have embraced new technologies for on-the-job monitoring, turning a blind eye to unjust working conditions.

Karen Levy

How a new class of “salts”—radicals who take jobs to help unionization—is boosting the organizing efforts of long-term workers.

Mie Inouye

The late author of Nickel and Dimed played a major role in women’s liberation and U.S. socialism.

Lynne Segal
Non-college-educated U.S.-born workers have every reason to be enraged by declining wages and living standards, but more restrictive immigration policies won’t solve these problems.
Ruth Milkman

Workers will benefit from technology when they control how it’s used.

Brishen Rogers

Our weekly themed Reading Lists compile the best of Boston Review’s archive. Sign up for our newsletters to get them straight to your inbox before they appear online.

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