Eight Hours For What They Will

May 30th, 2011  |  Published in Art and Literature, Time, Work

The other day I re-watched John Carpenter’s [*They Live*](http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096256/)–which, for the record, is a pretty good satire of Reagan-era America, and deserves to be remembered for more than just that stupid Shepard Fairey [sticker campaign](http://obeygiant.com/). While watching, I noticed something pretty great that I missed the first time through. It shows up after the main character puts on magic sunglasses, which allow him to see that the billboards around him actually contain secret brainwashing messages. Most of these just say things like “consume” and “obey”. But check out the sign in the upper left corner of this picture:

That command, of course, is a riff on an old slogan of the 19th century labor movement, which demanded the eight-hour day using signs like this one:

As David Roediger and Philip Foner remark in their [great history of American labor and the working day](http://books.google.com/books?id=h8P-uuyYe_YC&lpg=PA324&ots=xG4cd8F4rn&dq=roediger%20foner&pg=PA98#v=onepage&q&f=false):

> [T]he cry “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for recreation,” acted as more than a common denominator. It embodied . . . the highest aspirations of the working population. It expressed cherised values. . . . In making the eight-hour system the key to equal education for children, to the continued mental development of adults, to the defense of republican virtue and class interest by an enlightened and politically active citizenry, to health, to vigor, and to social life, supporters viewed their demand as an initial step to major changes, not as a niggling reform. (pp. 98-99)

As is well known, the demand for shorter hours mostly disappeared from organized labor’s agenda after World War II, for [complex](http://books.google.com/books?id=lv9cfP1QMAcC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false) and [disputed](http://books.google.com/books?id=yV2xgJBNfo4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=cutler+uaw+hours&hl=en&ei=edPjTZqZAoPq0gH07Z2yBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false) reasons. The sign I saw in *They Live* is one consequence of abdicating the postive class argument for shorter hours. By the time the movie was made in 1988, the eight-hour movement’s greatest slogan could come to seem not like a cherished victory of the working class, but rather as a piece of dystopian propaganda. “Eight hours recreation” becomes the command to “play eight hours”, and this “play” is refigured as obligatory participation in consumerist culture rather than the opportunity for political, intellectual and moral development that it signified for the eight-hour campaigners. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that these days long hours are often portrayed as an issue of individual preferences or “workaholic” psychology, rather than the outcome of organized labor’s long political defeat.

I have a feeling this little vignette will end up in my dissertation somehow, although I don’t think I mentioned doing any cultural studies in my fellowship proposal.

Obligatory Google Ngram Post

December 20th, 2010  |  Published in Data, Social Science, Statistical Graphics, Time

It appears that everyone with a presence on the Internet is obligated to post some kind of riff on the [amazing Google Ngram Viewer](http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/info). Via Henry Farrell, I see that Daniel Little has attempted to [perpetrate some social science](http://understandingsociety.blogspot.com/2010/12/new-tool-for-intellectual-history.html), which made me think that perhaps while I’m at it, I can post something that actually relates to my dissertation research for a change. Hence, this:

Instances of the phrases "shorter hours" and "higher wages" in the Google ngram viewer.

Click for a bigger version, but the gist is that the red line indicates the phrase “higher wages”, and the blue line is “shorter hours”. Higher wages have a head start, with hours not really appearing on the agenda until the late 19th century. That’s a bit later than I expected, but it’s generally consistent with what I know about hours-related labor struggle in the 19th century.

The 20th century is the more interesting part of the graph in any case. For a while, it seems that discussion of wages and hours moves together. They rise in the period of ferment after World War I, and again during the depression. Both decline during World War II, which is unsurprising–both wage and hour demands were subordinated to the mobilization for war. But then after the war, the spike in mentions of “higher wages” greatly outpaces mentions of “shorter hours”–the latter has only a small spike, and thereafter the phrase enters a secular decline right through to the present.

Interest in higher wages appears to experience a modest revival in the 1970’s, corresponding to the beginnings of the era of wage stagnation that we are still living in. But for the first time, there is no corresponding increase in discussion of shorter hours. This is again not really surprising, since the disappearance of work-time reduction from labor’s agenda as been widely remarked upon. But it’s still pretty interesting to see such evidence of it in the written corpus.