Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

‘Shorten Our Hours, Prolong Our Lives’

On International Workers' Memorial Day, we remember the struggle for the shorter working week – when gas workers in 1880s London raised the slogan 'shorten our hours to prolong our lives.'

Today is International Workers’ Memorial Day, when the labour movement across the world comes together to remember those who have died on the job.

The day has a special resonance in the era of coronavirus. According to the government, 82 NHS staff and 16 care workers have died so far as a result of the pandemic. This figure, which is likely to be an underestimation, brings home the consequences of failing to supply workers with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).

For decades, even centuries, workers in Britain have fought against workplace conditions which threaten their lives. And many of those fights have been successful – from the battle against child labour to the introduction of health and safety laws. But perhaps none has been more important than the fight for shorter working hours. 

By the 1870s, many workers in Britain could expect to work up to 70 hours a week and live just 40 years. Yet, a century later, workers were working an average of around 40 hours a week and living until 70. That didn’t happen by force of nature – it needed workers to organise themselves and fight to improve their conditions.

Early Origins

The campaign for a shorter working week in Britain has deep roots. In social philosopher Thomas More’s 1516 classic Utopia an island society had been built in which workers were not

“wearied from early in the morning to late in the evening with continual work, like labouring and toiling beasts… For they, dividing the day and night into just 24 hours, assign only six of those hours to work; three before noon, upon which they go straight to dinner, and after dinner, when they have rested two hours, then they work three… About eight o’clock in the evening they go to bed.”

It would be three centuries later, in 1817, when the demand for a shorter working week was raised in the political sphere. Then, Welsh socialist and pioneer of the cooperative movement Robert Owen was clear about the rationale. “Eight hours daily labour is enough for any human being,” he said, “and under proper arrangements sufficient to afford an ample supply of food, raiment [clothing] and shelter.” For the remainder of the day every worker should be “entitled to education, recreation and sleep.”

Artwork from Will Thorne’s National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland.

Owen’s slogan – “eight hours’ labour, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest” – became foundational to the fledgling working-class movement, and still appears on banners across the world to this day. At the time, according to research conducted by early International Labour Organisation director Stephan Bauer, the working day in factories in Britain typically lasted between 12 and 14 hours.

In his 1845 book The Conditions of the Working-Class in England Friedrich Engels described the workplace of the era in detail,

“In many rooms of the cotton and flax-spinning mills, the air is filled with fibrous dust, which produces chest and bronchial complaints, especially among workers in the carding and combing-rooms… The most common effects of this breathing of dust are blood-spitting, hard, noisy breathing, pains in the chest, coughs, sleeplessness – in short, all the symptoms of asthma ending in the worst cases in consumption.”

The long hours of work produced “peculiar deformities,” Engels wrote, including “diseases of the knee-pan” and stunted growth, especially among the girls who often worked in the throstle rooms. Accidents too were common, with the streets of industrial cities like Manchester resembling “an army just returned from a campaign,” “this one has lost an arm or a part of one, that one a foot, the third half a leg”. 

The 1833 Factory Act had limited the working day for children in factories. In 1847, as Chartism reached its peak influence as a workers’ movement, this was updated to limit working hours for women and children to ten hours per day. But even that was often circumvented with second shifts, and the majority of the working-class remained in a largely unregulated state.

It was no surprise when the First International, founded in London in 1864, adopted a resolution endorsing the eight-hour day. It read “the legal limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvements and emancipation of the working class must prove abortive.”

But it wasn’t until the 1880s that the demand was endorsed by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), after a campaign by pioneering trade union activist Tom Mann and his Eight Hour League. At the end of that decade east London gas workers led by Will Thorne went on strike for the eight-hour day and won, leading to its first recognised application in British history. Their strike had followed an increase in compulsory hours from twelve per day to eighteen, and was fought with the slogan “shorten ours hours to prolong our lives.”

The next year, 1890, London’s mass May Day demonstration drew over 200,000 workers behind a banner calling for the eight-hour day to be made law. Eleanor Marx, speaking from the platform, would remark “I can remember when we came in handfuls of a few dozen to Hyde Park to demand an Eight Hours’ Bill, but the dozens have grown to hundreds, and the hundreds to thousands, until we have this magnificent demonstration that fills the park today.”

Four years prior the first International Workers’ Day had been held in Chicago, calling for “all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”

In 1891, Fabians Sidney Webb and Harold Cox wrote the landmark polemic The Eight Hours Day arguing for legislation to be introduced mandating an eight hour maximum on all industrial labour. “The state is compelled to interfere between machinery and man,” the economists wrote, “because otherwise man would be crushed by a demon of his own creation.”

By 1894, the third volume of Karl Marx’s Capital was published, including an iconic line which summed up the movement’s social purpose. “The shortening of the working-day,” Marx wrote, “is [freedom’s] basic prerequisite.”

A New Century

Throughout the nineteenth century, pitched battles had been fought and won by workers for eight-hour days. In the coalfields of South Yorkshire and Durham, by the end of the 1800s, they had become the norm – coal’s crucial importance to industry providing the leverage for additional gains. But the victories were still sporadic. In other industries, such as iron and steel, Stephan Bauer records shifts lasting as long as 24-hours into the 1890s.

By the first decade of the twentieth century negotiations were finding success in even the most recalcitrant industries. John Hodge, an early trade unionist in iron and steel who would go on to serve as Minister of Labour under the Coalition government, wrote about the strategies pursued by workers’ organisations to circumvent management opposition to the eight-hour day:

“So anxious were the workmen to achieve an eight-hour day that the higher paid men came to the determination, so as to remove every argument of the employers, that they would pay a percentage out of their own wages so as to give the lower-paid classes an eight-hour day with themselves, and so to get rid of the argument of the increased cost of production; but added to this was a proviso that the average output of the melting shop should be ascertained, and such taken as a basis, and for every extra ton of output over that average a bonus should be given to the higher paid men, so that what they had given to the lower paid men would come back to them in greater volume as the output increased. Today, I believe, the contribution of the higher paid men is very small, if not entirely wiped out, as a result of increased output.”

An eight-hour day rally in Denmark in 1912.

At the same time there was a growing international movement to harmonise labour legislation across borders. In 1900, the International Association for Labour Legislation was founded with the aim of studying workplace practices in different countries and “bringing about international congresses on labour legislation.” In 1904, the socialist Second International renewed its call for May Day to focus on the achievement of the eight-hour day, but broadened this to encourage strike action in pursuit of the goal:

“The most effective way of demonstrating on May First is by stoppage of work. The Congress therefore makes it mandatory upon the proletarian organisations of all countries to stop work on May First, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers.”

The arrival of the First World War shattered the unity of the Second International, but back in Britain its affiliate, the Labour Party, had grown significantly. The Liberal Party’s refusal to support an eight-hour day had been one of Keir Hardie’s key arguments to the Trades Union Congress for it should support a Labour Party – and, under Hardie’s leadership, it went from 2 to 29 seats between 1900 and 1906. This reached 42 by December 1910.

In 1908, the Labour Party first raised the eight-hour day in Westminster. The bill was moved by J. R. Clynes, then the MP for Manchester North East, who was a former organiser in the Lancashire Gasworkers’ Union and someone who had begun work at ten years old in a cotton mill in Oldham. During his speech to the House of Commons, Clynes noted that there were already 40,000 workers in Britain who had secured eight-hour days through sectoral agreements and that the government had indicated its willingness to make this the norm in the mining industry.

Legislation mandating an eight-hour day would, Clynes said, “tend to equalise the burden which now so heavily pressed upon the shoulders of the industrial classes, tend to diminish unemployment, lessen accidents, and improve the character and the outlook for our industrial population.” He did, however, note that it would be met by stubborn opposition across much of British industry. “I am not going to consider,” he said, “the extravagant fancies and stupid arguments against it, such as the arguments that at the stroke of the eighth hour the fireman would step attending to a fire, or the lifeboat man would stop going to sea.”

Speaking at an anniversary event for the Independent Labour Party, then a Labour Party affiliate, in 1914, Keir Hardie noted the centrality of the struggle for a shorter working week to the labour movement – and other, more philosophical, arguments raised against it at the time:

“It was tenaciously upheld by the public authorities, here and elsewhere, that it was an offence against laws of nature and ruinous to the State for public authorities to provide food for starving children, or independent aid for the aged poor. Even safety regulations in mines and factories were taboo. They interfered with the ‘freedom of the individual’. As for such proposals as an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, the right to work, and municipal houses, any serious mention of such classed a man as a fool. These cruel, heartless dogmas, backed up by quotations from Jeremy Bentham, Malthus, and Herbert Spencer, and by a bogus interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, were accepted as part of the unalterable laws of nature, sacred and inviolable, and were maintained by statesmen, town councillors, ministers of the Gospel, and, strangest of all, by the bulk of Trade Union leaders. That was the political, social and religious element in which our Party saw the light.”

The end of the war saw the rise of the League of Nations and, with it, the emergence of the International Labour Organisation. It met for the first time in 1919 and its first convention endorsed “the principle of the 8 hours day or of the 48 hours week.” But while the Treaty of Versailles made mention of the eight-hour day aspiration – and it was mandated by legislation in countries like Uruguay in 1915 and Spain in 1919 – Britain never brought forward a law making it standard. In fact, Baldwin’s Tory government in the 1930s introduced legislation to increase the working day in numerous sectors where it had been curtailed.

As in the nineteenth century, it was left up to the trade union movement to negotiate directly for these improvements to workers lives – as it did, sector by sector. It made significant strides in this area under the favourable conditions of a Labour government after the war and, by 1955, the eight-hour day had become the de facto norm across workplaces in Britain.

Ongoing Struggle

It wasn’t until 1998 that Britain had its first national and universal legislation mandating a maximum of working hours. Even then, the Working Time Regulations were only introduced on foot of the European Union’s 1993 Working Time Directive. Opposing that measure at the time, Tory Employment Secretary David Hunt said, “The UK strongly opposes any attempt to tell people that they can no longer work the hours they want.”

Walter Crane’s 1894 May Day offering supporting the eight-hour day.

Unsurprisingly, workers did not stage mass protests against the Working Time Directive’s 48-hour maximum work week. On the contrary, it proved widely popular at the time, which is why it was embraced by Tony Blair’s Labour government. But on foot of these Tory arguments, Britain did become one of the European countries to adopt a waiver system – by which workers could ‘voluntarily’ opt out of these maximums if they so wished.

This opt out has been widely abused by management to force workers on low pay and insecure contracts to work far longer than 48 hours. In recognition of this problem, a recent European Court of Justice case sought to fine-tune the directive, forcing companies to keep logs of daily working hours as a means of ensuring compliance. However, Britain’s exit from the European Union will mean it is exempt from even this minimal oversight.

The period since the 1980s has seen more than a century’s worth of progress in shortening the working week grind to a halt. A recent study from the New Economics Foundation showed that between the Second World War and the 1970s, increases in productivity resulted in more time off as well as higher earnings – but this ended with Thatcherism and the defeat of the trade unions. Now, British workers work some of the longest hours in Europe, almost two-and-a-half weeks more than their counterparts per year on average, according to the Trades Union Congress.

But trade unions have begun to fight back. The Communications Workers Union (CWU) launched its ‘drive for 35’ campaign in 2016. In 2018, the union negotiated a historic ‘work-life balance’ agreement with Royal Mail to chart a course towards 35-hour weeks for 130,000 postal workers across the country. The same year the Trades Union Congress marked its 150th anniversary by endorsing a four-day week and higher pay.

The cause was picked up by the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, who commissioned the Skidelsky Report which recommended shortening the working week on an experimental, sector-by-sector basis. As Shadow Chancellor, McDonnell committed the party to a shorter working week with no loss of pay at Labour’s 2019 party conference.

These proposals were put aside by the general election campaign in December, as a result of internal pressure from the right-wing of the party. But a reduction of the working week remains a necessary measure to improve workers’ lives. A recent study found that two-thirds of British workers are overworking – by an average of 6.3 hours per week. The growth of technology means that it is increasingly impossible to clock out of work, with over one-third of workers in the UK continuing to work when they get home because of a pressure to respond to emails.

In 2016, France introduced a ‘right to disconnect’ which banned work emails after 6pm – and a poll conducted of UK workers showed that 65 percent wanted to see something similar introduced here. This should come as no surprise. According to the Health and Safety Executive, 57 percent of all sick days in 2017-’18 were caused by work-related stress, anxiety or depression. 44 percent were caused by work pressures alone.

On International Workers’ Memorial Day, it’s time for the labour movement to raise the banner of shortening the working week with no loss of pay once again. Today, flatlining wages mean that one fifth of working households face in-work poverty. Meanwhile, the drive towards ‘flexibility’ in the workplace means that 1.8 million people are working on zero-hour contracts and millions more are in bogus self-employment.

These working conditions are a guaranteed recipe for longer hours in the workplace – and the devastating impacts on quality of life they bring. Already we know that life expectancy is falling in the most deprived areas of Britain. In the 2020s, huge swathes of the workforce will be working longer than the eight-hour days their great-great-grandparents struggled to achieve. As we remember the cost of labour to workers’ lives, it’s time to fight for freedom’s basic prerequisite once again.