In 1885 the group of labor unions that would later become the American Federation of Labor boldly declared that as of May 1st 1886, eight hours would constitute a day’s labor. This was at a time when 12 and 14 hour days were the norm for wage earners. And to the surprise of many, working people across the U.S. organized themselves and walked out of their factories to make that declaration a reality. Some succeeded. Most did not. It would be another 52 years before the Fair Labor Standards Act mandated the 8 hour day, overtime, and the minimum wage for most wage workers (with significant exceptions).
We’re on the far side of that history now. The 8 hour day, the 40 hour week and the steady job are not even part of most workers’ living memory. Most young workers (say under 30) are intimately familiar with what used to be called “nonstandard” work arrangements, self-funded health insurance and pensions, and a do-it-yourself approach to the labor market. The current economic crisis, now more than a year old, has simply brought the ugly reality of contemporary work into the narrow focus, and short attention span, of the mainstream media. The rise and fall of the 8 hour day was a long arc. It took half a century to win the 8 hour day, and another 70 years to bring us to our own dismal days.
It is our distance from that long crisis of capitalism (or series of crises) that makes possible the return of May Day. As some have noted, the when Republicans call Obama a “socialist,” the result is an increase in the number of people identifying as “socialists.” They don’t even bother with “communist,” and their recent forays into “fascist” likely won’t fly either. We’re in a new era. Not a particularly nice era. But a generational shift in personnel and in language. If our political economy moves along through a series of crises, then we’re in a new form of crisis. And we’ve yet to see what forms of organizing, and what rhetorical appeals, really have traction.
One word to look for is “stakeholder.” Without any legal definition, stakeholder implies a claim to participation in decision making and in a share of the benefits of society. It conjures a world of competing legitimate interests, and implies negotiation and compromise. If you look at the language of the union haters decrying the Chrysler and GM deals you can see their underlying argument is usually that workers don’t deserve high wages because they are lazy. Shareholders, on the other hand are exempt from the charge of laziness frankly because they have money. The argument of May Day, and the language of stakeholding, is that everyone deserves to make a decent living by virtue of living in a society. Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what we will. There are only 24 hours in a day, and so many years in a life. The eight hour movement sought to claw back some portion of that for people to decide on their own.
The language of stakeholding isn’t perfect. It can be used as a cover for enforced cooperation (“we’re all in this together”) and one-sided “partnerships” between labor and management. But it has several advantages. Because it is not a legal term, its content has to be defined, and redefined, in actual processes of organizing and negotiation. It can transcend citizenship and legal status, as in: people working and living in a particular situation, whether they’re legally permitted to or not, are all stakeholders and should be consulted. It’s not too far from how collective bargaining actually works, when it works. And, strategically, it has favor with and leverage on our popular President. So let’s watch for talk of stakeholding as we go forward and try to make opportunities out of our latest crisis.