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Labor Day Reflections: Time as a Democracy Issue


The Overworked Work Harder

The real outcome of the 2000 Presidential elections – a clear Gore victory if the votes had been properly counted and if numerous voting irregularities that especially discriminated against blacks had been prevented – is not the only piece of vital information relevant to the state of American democracy that got shelved by 9-11 and its aftermath.

Another piece of such information was released by the Brussels-based International Labor Organization (ILO) on the eve of America’s Labor Day, 11 days prior to the jetliner attacks. “Workers in the United States,” the ILO’s chief labor market economist Lawrence Jeff Johnson found, “are putting in more hours than anyone else in the industrialized world.” ILO’s research showed that the average American in the prior year worked 1,978 hours, up from 1,942 hours in 1990.

Already in the earlier year, large numbers of Americans were complaining about being worked to death. Left economist Juliet Schor was writing her excellent and widely acclaimed The Overworked American: the Unexpected Decline of Leisure (NY: Basic, 1992).

This amounted to an increase of nearly a week of work, counter to the trend in other industrialized nations, where the number of hours worked annually fell during the 1990s. The average Mexican, Canadian, Australian, and even Japanese worker was on the job approximately 100 hours less than the average American worker in the last year of the 20th century. Workers in Brazil and England worked 250 hours less than the Americans. Germans worked around 500 hours or 12 and a half weeks less than their counterparts in the USA.

Remarkably, of countries classified as “developing” by the ILO, only the Czech Republic and South Korea had longer hours than the United States.

These findings are ironic when it is recalled that much of the world celebrates its labor day on May 1st, the day designated by American trade unionists for massive demonstrations on behalf of shorter hours (the “Eight Hour Day”) in 1886. In the “United States of Amnesia” (as Michael Eric Dyson calls the US), only a tiny few know about the American origins of “May Day,” when Chicago’s “Haymarket Martyrs” are honored in remote Andean villages for their sacrifices on behalf of shorter working hours.

No Reward for Increased Productivity

Another seeming irony concerned the ILO’s discovery that labor productivity grew at a considerably faster rate than in most other industrialized states since the mid-1990s. In a rational and humane society, increasing productivity would translate into reduced hours for an overworked population.

In a profit-driven society that is more capital- than people-friendly, however, such translation does not occur. In the United States, where less than one in ten private sector workers belongs to a union and where politics, culture, and public policy are most strikingly dominated by capital, the employer class is uniquely free to bypass the normal constraints, moral and otherwise, on “working people to death.” The constraints are weakened further by the ongoing recession, which expands the reserve army of labor that capital uses to discipline those who are “fortunate” enough to have jobs.

The weakness of unions is pivotal. As Schor showed, consistent with the bumper sticker on my Ford (it reads “The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought you the Weekend”), no single institutional force has done more to limit American working hours, historically, than organized labor.

Time and Space

Things are made deadlier still by the large amount of time many Americans spend getting to and from work as well shopping centers, schools, and various points of recreation and treatment. Thanks to the automobile-centered pattern of commercial and residential development known as “sprawl,” tens of millions of Americans begin and end overlong workdays and spend scarce “leisure” hours sucking exhaust – stuck behind the wheels of ecocidal automobiles on vast stretches of faceless, overcrowded “freeway.” They are overextended in space as well as time in dialectically inseparably ways.

Recently released Census figures for urban regions show that the average length of commuting time rose by 14 percent, from 22.4 minutes in 1990 to 25.5 minutes in 2000. According to the Washington DC-based Road Information Program, “the result of longer commutes is that people are spending as much as an additional working week traveling to and from work every year.”

Working Ourselves to Death

American workers suffer numerous deleterious consequences from the vicious cycle of work, spend, and commute: chronic anxiety, insomnia, depression, physical and mental illness, and insufficient time to spend with friends and loved ones or in self-nurturing activities. Some investigators during the 1990s even found that the corporate employer had replaced the family, friends, and local community as the primary source of social identification and “nurturance” for millions of Americans. This was the key discovery of Arlie Russel Hochschild’s widely read Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, 2001).

It’s a disturbing finding when we consider the real depth and degree of American corporations’ commitment to their “family” of employee, revealed in recent scandals.

Not surprisingly, Americans resent the exceptionally large portion of their lives they are required to rent out to the employer class. A CNN Internet poll conducted after the release of the ILO report last summer received 6,994 responses to the question “are you working longer hours than you were 10 years ago.” Sixty-four percent of poll participants chose the response “definitely and I don’t like it.”

The “overworked American’s” sufferings are duly reported in a vast human resources and industrial relations literature, some of whose participants dare to question the real long-term efficiency of “working people to death.”

“Time to Fit Himself for Citizenship”: the Curiously Neglected Issue of Democracy

One problem, however, is insufficiently appreciated, even in the work of sensitive and progressive scholars like Schor and Hochschild. It is the challenge that the vicious circle poses to peoples’ ability to become reasonably informed about and meaningfully engaged in public affairs.

It is a self-serving careerist myth of so-called “social scientists” and other members of the pontificating class that one needs special “expertise,” meaning years of training (and indoctrination) in specialized fields of “higher education,” to meaningfully grasp main currents of human social and political developments past and present. Still, such understanding does require a reasonable measure of free time, permitting one to read and reflect, to study and sort out the competing claims and subtle and often buried facts of policy, politics, and power.

One does not develop the capacity to criticize US Middle Eastern or Nuclear or Environmental or Criminal Justice policy in a state of perpetual exhaustion and distraction, snatching only small pieces of time from an endless cycle of working, commuting, shopping, and, when possible, sleeping.

Without time, brain-weary worker-citizens tend to become over-reliant on the often bad, generally biased, and heavily filtered information manufactured by those whose salaried task is to shape mass opinion in the interests of those who pay their salaries – the CEOS of an ever shrinking number of private media mega-corporations that are themselves pinnacle members of the nation’s corporate plutocracy.

Last September, this “mainstream” (really corporate) media used its incredibly powerful role, greatly enhanced by the decline of leisure, to idiotically inform America’s time-starved masses that the 9-11 hijackers attacked America mainly because they hated our “freedom” and “democratic” way of life.

Of course, forming organizations and holding meetings to mobilize democratic engagement and perhaps even to form “alternative” (non-corporate) media also takes increasingly scarce free time.

Neglect of the time squeeze’s anti-democratic consequences by even labor-sympathetic analysts is ironic, historically speaking, for citizenship-enabling free time was arguably labor’s first leading issue in the US. The loss of leisure to capital was, in the words of early labor historian Helen Sumner, the “cause of the first awakening of American wage-earners to their interests as a class” during the early 19th century.

At the start, when the labor movement was most closely linked to the legacy of the revolution, the reason those workers most commonly advanced for wanting more free time related directly to citizenship concerns. “They expressed,” noted historian Benjamin Hunnicut, “the need for time to study and understand the democratic process, to discuss issues, to organize politically, and simply to vote.”

These concerns reflected and resonated strongly with the nation’s republican tradition, garnering workers considerable popular support in their struggle for shorter hours through the rest of the century. An example is provided by the Report of the Special Commission on the Hours of Labor to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1866. “Overwork,” the commission concluded, “stunts the mind, gives no time for culture, no opportunity for reading, study, or mental improvement.

It leaves the system jaded and worn, with no ability to study. This,” the commission added, expressing widespread sentiment at the time, “is the workingman’s country. The welfare of the State and the Nation demand that time be given him to fit himself for worthy citizenship. A free country demands an intelligent as well as a free people.”

Without the time to actually cultivate and exercise the liberal freedoms won through revolution, early American wage-earners felt that they were “condemned to an inferior position in the state.” They were little better off, many 19th century Americans felt, than America’s own chattel slaves or the degraded proletariat of (supposedly more) reactionary Europe. “A laborer in the US,” one eight-hour supporter told the Massachusetts legislature in 1867, “needs more leisure than one in the same position in Europe because he has the elective franchise and is part of the government.”

This short-hours enthusiast wrote and spoke in a time when American workers often designated (when possible) one of their work crew to read aloud from newspapers while the rest toiled, reflecting a determination not to let the commands of capital overwhelm their capacity to stay current on the issues of the time. He was the product of a country whose Founders expected artisans and farmers to follow complex (by modern standards) political and policy arguments (the Federalist Papers) that cause rebellions when assigned to increasingly time-squeezed contemporary college students who find the thoughts of Madison and Hamilton “too difficult” to read.

Thomas Jefferson, who felt that democracy was impossible without an educated citizenry, would be appalled by modern American time poverty. Where, he would wonder, do the ancestors of his revolution find the time to be citizens in more than name?

Where and when to they find the space to learn the ins and outs of current events and issues (say the current debate over American policy in the Middle East) when they spend the majority of their waking hours getting ready for, traveling to and returning and recovering from jobs whose performance commonly drains much if not most of their intellectual energy? What good, he might well ask, is his Declaration of Independence to America’s teeming mass of wage, salary, and time slaves?

Declining leisure is certainly not the only or even perhaps the major obstacle to democracy in the United States and the forces of corporate thought control have made than a few colonial incursions into the inner world of American leisure itself. Still, working hours and time squeeze deserve considerably more mention than they typically receive from those trying to understand and reverse America’s dangerous democracy deficit – a shortfall that has dark consequences for the entire planet At the same time, those who write and speak about the negative consequences of overly long working hours would do well to add disablement of democracy to their list of grievances

As the founders of both the nation and the nation’s labor movement knew quite well, time is a democracy issue and the erosion of peoples’ access to it does not bode well for the future of popular government in the “land of the free.”

Paul Street is a social policy researcher, freelance writer, and onetime labor historian in Chicago, Illinois. He can be reached at [email protected]

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