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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: 160 ans de luttes du mouvement ouvrier

by Michel Etiévent

160 years of labor struggle for shorter hours

Translated Sunday 20 July 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

As far back as 1848, the employers opposed the reduction of the work day from 14 to 12 hours because “it would trigger a series of bankruptcies.”

June 1936. The bosses are in a panic. The work week has fallen to 40 hours. The metal trades bosses thunder against the “law instituting laziness”: “Our companies are lost. How is the nation to recover if our workers, who are used to piece-work and are proud to do it, work half as much? France is headed for disaster. And all of us will lose from this excess of laziness!” The bosses’ song and dance against reducing working hours is an old one. In fact, it’s as old as capitalism itself.

Over the centuries, the same arguments crop up in the archives. The year: 1848. Thanks to the workers’ struggle, the working day in the Lyons textile industry has just fallen from 14 to 12 hours. For the silk bosses, catastrophe has struck. They address a supplication to the prefect [in France, the local representative of central government] to condemn the danger and amorality of the new law: “We draw your attention to the serious consequences for our industries if this law is enforced. As you know, labor here is demanding and over-expensive. With a 14-hour day, we can barely stay afloat. The 12-hour day will trigger a string of bankruptcies. Work in our factories has always begun at 4 a.m., with a 15-minute break at noon, and the end of the day at 6 p.m. The girls we employ have worked thus, without their health ever having been damaged and without their ever complaining of their lot, which moreover is a happy one when you think of all the jobless people wandering the streets. Labor here is more expensive than abroad. If we were to pay the same salary for a 12-hour work day, the game would be over. We would be forced to close our factories and to relocate them someplace where working-women are not such spendthrifts. And then, let there be no mistake about it – the working-woman working a 12-hour day would continue to get up at dawn, to arrive at the factory only at the exact minute work begins, and would be more disposed to resting from the activities which she would have pursued outside the factory than to getting down to work in our factories with fervor. Liberated from work earlier in the evening, she would not take advantage of this to get a proper night’s rest. We should have to fear for the morality of those who, being without a family, would see themselves freed from all surveillance for two long hours in the evening.” Isn’t this an eloquent text? Later, the bosses were to point out the same thing in condemning the law forbidding children to work in the mines, calling it “an ignoble law that infringes on individual freedom and the right to work.”

The same song and dance was repeated in 1919. After years of industrial action, the law establishing the 8-hour day was met with the same horrified reactions. This is what a metal trades entrepreneur wrote: “They have a grudge against those who produce the wealth of the country. It is certain that our industries will wither away, and then what will our workers do with all this free time? Idleness, and a more earnest frequenting of the bars. Morality is decidedly not on the side of the government. Shall we soon have to relocate our industries to the colonies?”

One last example. November 12, 1938. Using decrees that are known as the “poverty decrees,” the Edouard Daladier government abolishes the benefits obtained under the Popular Front, including the bitterly-won 40-hour week, established in June, 1936. The argument merits being quoted in full: “This law instituting laziness and national betrayal is the cause of all the problems our economy is facing. It will trigger the fall of France. We cannot have a working class that enjoys a “week with two Sundays in it” [the 40-hour week meant working five days a week instead of six] while the employers are choking themselves to keep the country alive!” Two years later, resorting to the same arguments, Marshal Philippe Pétain was to sweep away the last labor laws and the trade unions that were behind them....

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