Cathy Nugent continues a series on the life and times of Tom Mann
Soon after Tom Mann joined the Social Democratic Federation he proposed to a packed meeting of his Battersea branch that they launch a campaign for an eight-hour day. The SDF had already made the demand part of its policy, but it was a paper policy, not something to agitate about, or fight for.
John Burns opposed the motion on the grounds that the “capitalist system was on its last legs and that it was our duty to prepared at once to seize the whole of the means of production and wipe out the capitalists altogether.” An eight hour day campaign would be a distraction. The future Liberal Minister’s speech received thunderous applause; a vote was taken and Mann’s proposal was defeated.
Mann was not put off. Although he also thought a big breakthrough for socialists was possible he also had a notion that an eight hour day campaign would be useful to the movement. It would help rouse and unite the workers — skilled and unskilled, women and men.
Mann was absolutely right. Across the Atlantic American trade unionists were proving him right, coming together (although not united politically!) to demand the eight hour day and working towards a general strike day for 1 May as a means to achieve it.
In April 1886 Mann got a group of like-minded SDFers together to form the Eight Hours League. With the help and encouragement of fellow-SDFer HH Champion (who also owned a printing press), Tom Mann wrote a pamphlet “What a Compulsory Eight Hour Day Means to the Workers”. This popular little pamphlet did a lot to create a campaign which would gradually grow and intersect with the creation of the “ new unions” of semi and unskilled workers at the end of the 1880s.
Karl Marx’s Capital was finally published in an English translation in 1886. Mann would not have not read it or very much in the way of economic theory. Mann’s pamphlet relies heavily on just one historical account — Thorold Rogers’ Six Centuries of Work and Wages — which says that long working hours are a relatively recent invention and only came about with modern capitalism. Marx uses similar historical material in his explanation for why workers and bosses go to war over the length of the working day.
Marx says that as capitalism develops the capitalists make efforts to lengthen the working day. But “the prolongation of the working day beyond the limits of the natural day, into the night, only acts as a palliative. It only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour…” The capitalists are driven to find all sorts of ways to maximise the use of the machines in order to maximise profits. They introduce shifts, they enact laws to lengthen the working day, they shorten meal breaks, they put children to work through the night.
What is important to Marx is the effect of long hours on the worker as a human being.
“The worker is nothing other than labour power for the duration of his whole life, and that therefore all his disposable time is by nature and by right labour-time, to be devoted to the self-valorisation of capital. Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfilment of social functions, for social intercourse, for the free play of the vital forces of his body and his mind, even the rest time of Sunday (and that in a country of Sabbatarians!) — what foolishness! But in its blind and measureless drive, its insatiable appetite for surplus labour, capital oversteps not only the moral but even the merely physical limits of the working day. It usurps the time for growth, development and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It haggles over the meal times, where possible incorporating them into the production process itself, so that food is added to the worker as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler and grease and oil to the machinery.”
As soon as workers get over the shock of migrating from the countryside to the city, and adjust to the noise and stench of the city and become aware of their own enslavement to the machine, they begin to organise. The fight to shorten the working day is important because it is a fight to get back their lives, to be able to breath, rest, think.
The demand for a shorter “normal” working day is an intrinsically socialistic demand, more so than demands for higher wages or even aspects of workers’ control. It is the struggle of the workers for some individual autonomy. As a demand of a working class movement it becomes universal: the movement is trying to impose the idea that in society all human beings should be free to develop their interests, passions, education.
When socialist activists ask themselves the question “what will socialism be like?”, they often think about people doing very little work; “work” will be concentrated on producing, replacing and renewing what is democratically determined to be socially necessary. Social production will be limited to very little time in anybody’s life. The rest of the time we will be free to “cultivate our garden” whatever our garden may be.
There was a pre-history of British movements and campaigns for shorter working hours, from the Owenites through to the First International and beyond. Mann is not concerned with that in this pamphlet. Nor does he discuss existing legislation to limit the working day — the so called Factory Acts — which, fought for by the workers and desired by some middle class philanthropists, were often ignored by capitalists and left unimplemented by the state.
Few people in Britain today suffer sweatshop conditions; capitalist work is typically intense rather than prolonged and this is basically how the capitalist gets his profit. Although average working hours for full time workers are long some workers — those who are slaves to zero hour contracts for instance — suffer from a shortage of hours. The bosses won’t give them enough hours to get living wage. But sweatshop conditions do exist in some industries — the agricultural jobs done by migrant workers for instance. And of course millions suffer sweatshop conditions in the Free Trade Zones of the developing capitalist world.
It is not such a leap to imagine what it was like to be a worker in mid- to late-Victorian Britain. Your tiny bounded universe would have consisted of factory/mine, sleep, eat, factory/mine, sleep, eat for least six days a week. This was especially true for semi-skilled and unskilled workers outside the factories: bakers, gas stokers, shop workers, domestic servants.
Learning to live a little is then the central idea of Mann’s little pamphlet, but there are other ideas too:
• In the 1880s there was a trade depression for British captalism. This created mass unemployment in the new industrial towns, mass destitution and even starvation. Mann sees the eight hour day as a solution to the problem of mass unemployment. Less hours for some would mean some work for others.
• Workers need freedom to think about the reality of economic and social conditions, to become aware of their own situation.
“These economic questions cannot be understood in a sufficiently clear manner by the mass of the workers while they are absorbed twelve, fourteen, sixteen and even more hours a day while in work, and when out of work are walking about with the pangs of hunger eating out their vitals and the blackness of despair staring at them in the face at every turn.”
• An eight-hour day could unite the working class, benefiting skilled workers who may already have won a shorter (but not the eight hour) working day and the unskilled men, women and youth and who would typically work much longer hours.
• Such a campaign could help build militant unions and replace the existing conservative leadership of the official trade union movement based as it was on sectional, craft and inward looking organisation.
“To trade unionists I desire to make a special appeal. How long, how long will you be content with the present half-hearted policy of your unions? I readily grant that good work has been done in the past by the unions, but, in heaven’s name, what good purpose are they serving now?… The true unionist policy of aggression seems entirely lost sight of; in fact the unionist of today should be of all men the last to be hopelessly apathetic, or supporting a policy that plays directly into the hands of the capitalist exploiter…”
• Mann half links the question of achieving eight hours to that of having better political representatives in Parliament. He approves the recent suggestion by another trade unionist of having payment for MPs (the old Chartist demand). But he does not speak of workers’ political representation.
The vagueness about how the eight hours will be achieved is the weaknesses in Mann’s pamphlet.
He does not propose a general strike as they had decided upon in the US.
He is not promoting a Parliamentary Bill. Of course there were no workers’ MPs or parties at this time who would promote such a bill. The trade unions relied upon (and trade union leaders even became) Liberal MPs. Mann is clear about who the campaign is for, but he is not at all clear about who will take up the campaign. He ends his pamphlet with an appeal to all and sundry to unite and fight — “Liberal and Tory, Christian and freethinker, unionist and non-unionist, mechanic and labourer, radical and social-democrat, teetotaller or vegetarian (Mann was both)…”
The appeal is a reflection of a time when the socialist organisations were weak and the idea of working class political representation had yet to make itself a reality. It is also, for better or worse, a reflection of Mann’s political temperament — a drive to be inclusive to be “broad church”.
Mann spent a great deal of time promoting his big idea in the Radical Clubs around London where many workers hung out. The Eight Hours League set up several branches in London. It held a special conference in the spring of 1887 where delegates from the London’s trade unions voted in favour the eight hour day.
When Mann’s policy achieved success Hyndman decided to get on board. At the beginning of 1887 the SDF’s paper Justice promoted the campaign and reassured it’s readers that this “palliative” would not “check the revolutionary advances”.
Positive changes were beginning to take place in the labour movement. Tom Mann’s agitation was pushing forward that change. At the TUC Congress of 1887 a young Keir Hardie, from the Ayrshire miners, stood up and argued for the eight hour day. He attacked the “old gang” leaders of the trade union movement. And he linked the demand for an eight hour day to independent political representation for the workers. The question for debated for two days and Hardie’s motion was lost by 80 votes to 15.
It would take the spectacular victory of the gas workers in 1889, winning a cut in their working day from 12 to eight hours, to truly establish the demand in the workers movement and create the kind of unions Tom Mann had appealed for in 1886.
• Next issue: new unionism and the 1889 dock strike