Opinion: Labor Day

POSTED: 05/2/12 11:44 AM

Wifol-president Theophilus Thompson’s remark about the 8-hour working day hit the nail on the head for many workers. That was an achievement, though Thompson kept saying in his address at the union’s weekly press briefing that this had been achieved in 1986. That was an obvious slip of the tongue: the fight for decent working hours began of course much earlier.

During the industrial revolution in Great Britain (1750 – 1850) employees worked long hours, sometimes between 10 and 16 hours per day. That this was in the end counterproductive became clear slowly but surely. The workforce became exhausted and demoralized. Also, child labor was common in that era.

But in 1810 a man called Robert Owen, one of the founders of utopian socialism, came up with the idea for a 10-hour work day, something he put into practice in a factory he owned. Seven years later he took his ideas to the next level – the 8-hour working day. Owen even had a slogan for his ideas: eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation and eight hours of rest.

But it took another thirty years before women and children in England got their 10-hour working day, still a step behind Owen’s ideas that seemed at the time indeed utopian. The French picked it up from there and a year later after the February revolution of 1848, they enforces the 12-hour working day.

The fight for workers’ rights proved to be an unstoppable train, even though the going was tough and slow in those years. It took until August 1866, so we learn from Wikipedia, before the International Workingmen’s Association made the demand for an 8-hour working day an official demand in its convention that year.

In the 1840s and the 1850s there was some progress towards the 8-hour working day down under – in Australia and New-Zealand. But workers in Europe and elsewhere had to wait until the early 1900s before they finally got what they wanted.

That the 8-hour working day is an integral part of the Labor Day celebration is therefore more than understandable.

That Labor Day in some countries is called May Day gives some food for thought, because it sounds so much like the distress signal in radio communications. But that word mayday is actually bastardized French: it comes from venez m’aider (come help me). There are still plenty of workers, also in St. Maarten on whom this irony is not lost.

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