Home | Back issues | sfflier@well.com

August 29, 2008


Have a very jolly Labor Day!


If you’re a traditionalist, you’ll pack away your white clothes on Monday night: as Labor Day comes to an end, so does summer. If you’re more of a traditionalist, you’ll head to the beach or a park for the last picnic of the season. But if you’re the biggest traditionalist of them all, you’ll march in a parade, carrying a banner or sign supporting organized labor.

We’ve done it as a nation since 1894. But labor commentator Dick Meister reminds us that — as in many other areas — San Francisco did it first. Says Meister:

It was on Feb. 21, 1868. Brass bands blared, flags, banners and torchlights waved high as more than 31000 union members marched proudly through the city’s downtown streets, led by shipyard workers and carpenters and men from dozens of other construction trades.

The marchers called it a jollification. The occasion was the passage of a state-wide law mandating an eight-hour work day. San Francisco had already passed its own law the previous December, covering all city employees. But even the city government had been dragging its heels compared to the private sector. Ever since the end of the Civil War, San Francisco trade unionists, always a feisty group, had been bringing an end to the customary ten-hour day in one field after another, using an astonishingly simple method. Workers’ organizations announced that after a certain date their members would work no more than eight hours a day, and that all subsequent contracts must include a clause to that effect. In an era marked by vigorous strikes, employers listened. As early as June 2, 1867, the Morning Call said,

The eight-hour system is more in vogue in this city than in any other part of the world, although there are no laws to enforce it.

And so, late in February of 1868, after the state had followed their lead, thousands of San Francisco workers marched down Market Street. Chris Carlsson notes in Shaping San Francisco that

they marched in order by when they began working 8-hour days: ship caulkers (Dec. 1865), shipwrights (Dec. 1865), ship joiners (Jan. 1866), ship painters (Mar. 1866), plasterers (Aug. 1866), bricklayers (Feb. 1867), Laborer’s Protective Benevolent Association (Feb. 1867), stone masons (Mar. 1867), stonecutters and marble polishers (May 1867), lathers (May 1867), riggers (June 1867), metal roofers (June 1867), house painters (June 1867), plumbers and gas fitters (July 1867), and the machinists, ironworkers, brass finishers, and their apprentices, not then working eight hours.

Carlsson adds that the new work standards didn’t last long. Employers understandably opposed the idea. The American economy tanked in the turbulent period following the Civil War, and thousands of unemployed workers in other parts of the country hopped on the new transcontinental railroad, seeking jobs in the Far West. At the same time, the vast workforce that had built the railroad found itself out of a job. The eight-hour day became a fuzzy memory.

But also a dream to pursue. The issue refused to die, either in San Francisco or in the rest of the country. In time, city after city and then state after state passed eight-hour-day laws. It wasn’t until 1938, however, that the federal government followed suit, and its law arrived laden with exceptions.

And now? Now we seem to have gone full circle. In an article published last year in the Nation, Steve Early and Suzanne Gordon point out that the practices of forced overtime and nonstandard shifts have made the issue moot.

One of labor’s greatest twentieth-century achievements — the eight-hour day and forty-hour week — is rapidly becoming a thing of the past for millions of people, with neither the AFL-CIO nor “labor-friendly” Democrats doing much about it.

The press has dutifully detailed its demise. According to today’s San Francisco Chronicle, the latest entry in the funeral procession is the University of California:

The annual overtime pay throughout the 10-campus UC system rose by 12.4 percent to a total of $135 million. It was shared among 49,218 employees, according to an analysis of UC’s $8.9 billion annual payroll.

It’s not that employers necessarily want to return to the days of the sweat shop. Early and Gordon say,

Extra pay for overtime hours — whether legally mandated or privately negotiated — was not intended to fatten weekly paychecks. It was supposed to be a financial penalty, encouraging employers to expand their workforce rather than rely on overtime to meet production needs.

But expanding the workforce means paying more for health insurance. Kim Moody and Simone Sagovac have published a pamphlet called “Time Out: The Case for a Shorter Work Week,” which explains,

When job-based benefits like health insurance began to bulk up labor costs, premium pay ceased to be a deterrent to overtime. It became cheaper for employers to schedule overtime than hire new workers

That’s one reason why the AFL-CIO has been throwing itself into a national health insurance campaign. But unlike the prosperous mid-1860s, when labor organizations could dictate terms, today’s workers are at the mercy of their employers unless government intercedes. In their party platform, the Democrats say that they are on the side of the workers:

Democrats are committed to an economic policy that produces good jobs with good pay and benefits. That is why we support the right to organize. We know that when unions are allowed to do their job of making sure that workers get their fair share, they pull people out of poverty and create a stronger middle class. We will strengthen the ability of workers to organize unions and fight to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. We will restore pro-worker voices to the National Labor Relations Board and the National Mediation Board and we support overturning the NLRB’s and NMB’s many harmful decisions that undermine the collective bargaining rights of millions of workers.

If they win the White House and the Senate, and if they remember who put them there, the old labor song might again become a reality:

Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,
Eight hours for what we will.

Now that would be a real occasion for jollification!

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008