The 1871 ban on night work

A recent Oxfam study of factories producing for Wal-Mart, Target, Nike and similar companies underlined their abusive practices worldwide.

Sewing garments at night – often under brutal deadlines – is one of these abusive practices. “At times, the women have to stay up working all night and they understand perfectly the need for that flexibility,” the manager of one factory in Morocco tells Oxfam. “There are people working day, night, day, night, without sleeping,” reports a sewing machine operator producing for Wal-Mart in Kenya. At another factory, this one producing for Target in China, an average of two to three women were reportedly suffering head injuries every week after passing out from exhaustion.

Millions of workers in the U.S. are forced to unnecessarily work nights and weekends, at the cost of health and the social fabric. Employers in Virginia are now fighting a law mandating one day of rest.

There is an alternative. On March 18, 1871, after France’s defeat in war, the workers of Paris took power, establishing a government known as the Paris Commune. One of the Commune’s many great social measures was to ban unnecessary night work. At the time this applied to baking workers, who had been pressing unsuccessfully for such a ban for years.

The bakery owners petitioned the Commune’s executive commission to delay implementing the ban “for a few more days.” A remarkable discussion followed, the minutes of which have been preserved.

Some on the commission thought the issue should be left to “the interested parties” and that the “decree be revoked.” Another pointed out, “No one is asking you to revoke the decree. You are only being asked that it be postponed for two or three days.”

But Leo Frankel, head of the Commune’s Labor Commission, responded, “The class of bakery workers is the most unfortunate section of the proletariat; indeed, you will not find a more underprivileged trade. Every day we are told that the workers should educate themselves, but how can you educate yourself when you work at night?”

Another commission member: “I am not surprised that the employers are objecting to [the ban]; they will complain whenever we threaten one of their privileges. ... It would be against all principles of justice and human rights if we were to allow a worthwhile class of workers to remain outcasts of society for the benefit of the aristocracy of the belly.” Yet another: “In the provinces, the bread is baked by day; in some country places it is even baked weekly and it is just as good.”

Frankel again: Despite inadequacies in the decree, “nonetheless I support it because I feel that it is the only truly socialist decree passed by the Commune. ... To carry out these social reforms, ought we to consult the employers first? No! ... I have accepted no other mandate than to defend the proletariat, and when a reform is just I accept it and carry it out without worrying about consulting the employers. The measure decreed is fair; we must therefore defend it. (Applause).”

The decree was sustained. Women played an outstanding role. They raised the demand for equal pay for equal work, in those words. They called for reduction of work hours and abolition of all competition between men and women workers. Women’s comments were witty, irreverent and profound.

The Commune moved to seize factories idled or abandoned by their owners, both to cut unemployment and meet the Commune’s and workers’ needs. The Commune sought am international federation of unions.

After 72 days, the former government, dominated by French capitalists, overturned workers’ rule. They reinstated night work “for the convenience of the aristocracy of the belly.”

But great lessons were drawn from the Commune. These are summarized in Marx’s “The Civil War in France,” and Lenin’s “State and Revolution.” The Paris Commune informed the Russian Revolution of 1917 – one of whose first measures was to reduce the workday to eight hours – and all subsequent socialist revolutions, including those in China and Cuba. Its lessons have much to offer us today, including in the political struggle to sustain the day of rest in Virginia.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.