May Day, May Day…

Historians cite the 1886 May Day parade in Chicago — some 80,000 marchers, many of them involved later that week in the events surrounding the Haymarket Square Massacre — as one of the pivotal moments in modern labor history. The Chicago parade promoted the idea of an eight-hour workday; on this day in 1926, Henry Ford went one influential step further, declaring an eight-hour day and a five-day week for his plant workers, a policy soon adopted in factories across the country. As Ford explained in this 1926 newspaper interview, he was not motivated by altruism:

The harder we crowd business for time, the more efficient it becomes. The more well-paid leisure workmen get, the greater become their wants. These wants soon become needs.… We do know that many of the men have been building houses for themselves [with their free time], and to meet their demand for good and cheap lumber we have established a lumber yard where they can buy wood from our own forests.

As documented in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, the idea of a forty-hour week and a home in which to enjoy free time remains a fantasy for many contemporary workers. Using her hands-on, undercover research into minimum-wage living — weeks spent “Serving in Florida,” “Scrubbing in Maine,” and “Selling in Minnesota,” as her chapter headings put it — Ehrenreich concludes that the lowest-paid of America’s working poor have little chance of “a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment”; that, for the rest of us, “the only appropriate emotion is shame”; and that there’s trouble ahead for everybody:

Someday, of course — and I will make no predictions as to exactly when — they are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they’re worth. There’ll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.