Here's the text of the talk that Cde. Bill Martin gave at the virtual May Day Rally on 30 April
"Comrades, friends, thank you for coming along with us to our Mayday celebration. So, my question is, really, why are we celebrating? I think the simplest thing to say is: because it is our day. A day that belongs to the people who work: the so called key workers and non-key workers alike by whose labour wealth is generated and our society is kept running. But, so what, what if it is our day? Why is that worth celebrating?
Well, let’s just pause a little and – as with all good science, ask what seems an obvious question: what is a day? That might seem very straightforward, but I wouldn’t have much of a talk for you if I couldn’t pick it apart, just a little.
Of course, the answer that’s springing to all your minds is that a day is the time it takes the Earth to complete one rotation around its axis, relative to the sun. Conventionally, we say that that takes 24 hours – but of course, it does, in reality, vary a little due to the way the Earth spins. But it’s only a matter of second (of course, seconds add up). Apparently, the exact scientific definition of a day is 86,400 seconds – I could hit you with more detail, but you’re just as capable of reading the Wikipedia entry for day as I am.
But, my point is this, this is a relatively modern definition of day, one born of an industrialised mind-set that measures everything and wants to standardise everything into neatly defined infinitely reproducible and replaceable commodities. The idea of a day was around long before that.
As we experience it, a day is defined by sun or absence of sun. By those hours of daylight in which humans, certainly in the pre-electric light days, could be active and safe in the world, as opposed to night, that time of danger and darkness from which we sheltered in our homes and by light of fires.
Some of us experienced this a little during lockdown. With the options of brightly lit pubs, restaurants or cinemas to go to of an evening, the short daylight hours confined many of to our homes for much of the day: especially women. Whereas I could go for a walk, friends of mine reported being reluctant due to the darkness and actual attacks in their areas. During those days, my active hours of daylight became entirely taken over by my hours of work.
So, a day is something other than an arbitrary measure of time, or some objective aspect of a spinning rock in space. It is a unit of activity. We have evolved, uniquely, on that rock, with its spin and alternating passages of light and dark. And in our bodies we feel the effects of that evolution: we sleep in the night. We give up about eight hours a day (if we’re lucky) to that sleep. Days are something hard wired into our bodies.
It’s been recently reported that there was a scientific experiment in France. A group of people were sequestered in a cave, without communication devices, clocks or other pieces of modern paraphernalia (but with electricity, light and cooking equipment). They were there for forty days with no means of telling the time, and they were asked to perform tasks like to prepare a presentation in three days time. This was an experiment in isolation and bodily time sense: it will be interesting to hear the results. It is interesting people are looking at what happens when we are separated from the day/night cycle. There are obvious implications for space travel and colonisation, because removed from the Earth we lose the obvious thing that marks days.
It’s also interesting, and telling, that this experiment looked at how people functioned without knowing day nor night. To get to the meat of this chat: a day is the fundamental unit of human activity. Our days are defined by what we do, and what we can do is limited by days. To be able to go on performing tasks efficiently and well, we need to break them up into days and nights with time to sleep, refresh and rest between.
To put this in its basic form: the rough life expectancy of a person in Britain will be about 28,800 days. I won’t give you that in seconds, because we don’t live life in seconds. Those twenty eight thousand days are the only ones we will ever have, we never get refunds, we never get do overs, at best we can increase our allotment of days: with a bit of help from medical science. For someone who works full time, assuming a full career from 18 to 65 working five days a week, they will give over 12,220 of those days to their employers.
OK, that’s just at the raw level of days. Of course, not every second of each of those days is given over: but usually, the best hours are, the active alert able to perform hours. Eight hours of each of those days is given over to sleep (preparing for another day of work), another couple of hours each day are spent travelling to and from work, leaving the rest for eating, relaxing or meeting up with friends and family. But all the other activities are conditioned by being able to turn up to work the next day.
So, here we have the idea of the class struggle. When we give our time over to our employer, we give it to them to achieve the ends they desire. In a capitalist society that means producing commodities: good and services, which they can sell with a view to making a profit. The longer we work for them, the more they can use us, the more we do for the, the more goods and services they can sell for more profit. Thus, they will want as many days from us as they can get.
But, here’s the thing, the struggle isn’t just over days as such, it is about the very definition of day: what amounts to a days work? The number of hours we spend working for them increases how much they can get us to do for them. The fewer hours we work for them, the more time we have for ourselves, for our friends families and communities.
But it’s not just the length of the day: it can also be about the intensity: working harder during the hours we give over also increases the amount of work and profits we produce for the day buyers. The harder we work at work, the less we can do in our own time, the more it becomes a time for recovery to return to work.
Employment contracts are written in the language of abstracted absolute hours, but the reality it is it is what are are capable of doing – or being made to do in a day – that defines what happens to us and our employers."