Working the “Graveyard Shift” (U.S.)

February 22, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

“Wherever there is a working day without restriction as to length, wherever there is night-work and unrestricted waste of human life, there the slightest obstacle presented by the nature of the work to a change for the better is soon looked upon as an everlasting barrier erected by Nature.”
– Karl Marx, Capital Volume I

As if graveyard and shift workers needed a new reason to despise their jobs, which place their schedules in opposition to the waking world, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, has recently declared night work a “probable carcinogen,” with the American Cancer Society likely to follow suit. A report by the Associated Press states that research clearly shows “higher rates of breast and prostate cancer among women and men whose work day starts after dark.” This is due to the fact that melatonin, which is integral to the body’s functioning, is usually produced at night, while the body rests. Melatonin production is inhibited by the artificial lighting, putting night-shift workers at risk.

And what do shift workers get for their trouble? The Fair Labor Standards Act does not even require that they receive extra pay for having their schedules turned upside down. In the advanced capitalist economies, nearly 20 percent of workers are forced to work the night shift, with younger workers working more than older, blacks working more than whites, and perhaps most disturbing of all, single mothers more than married mothers. In all, 15.5 million people in the U.S. are formally engaged in some form of night labor.

Night labor has been part of capitalism for quite some time, and generally speaking, “to appropriate labor during all the 24 hours of the day” has been an “inherent tendency of capitalist production,” as the need to squeeze every last bit of surplus value out of the production process forces the capitalist class to resort to ever more dehumanizing methods of production (Marx, Capital Vol. I). Marx remarks in a footnote to Capital that the very fact that there is any “controversy” on the question of night labor “shows plainly how capitalist production acts on the brain-functions of capitalists and their retainers.”

Night labor has long been seen as a measure of the level of “development” of a capitalist economy. In more developed countries more workers work night shifts, or what Marx refers to as a “relay system,” i.e. a rotating system of day-night shifts. The relay system allows the boss to maintain production for the entire 24 hours of the day, but it is extremely dangerous for a worker’s health, as it results in sleep deprivation by upsetting his or her circadian rhythm, i.e., constantly forcing a resetting of the body’s internal clock.

According to a report produced by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, aside from disrupted melatonin production and sleep deprivation, “shiftworkers have more upset stomachs, constipation, and stomach ulcers than day workers.” The specific cause of these particular digestive problems is still up in the air. It could be another product of the disruption of the circadian rhythm, but it could also have a dietary cause, as often workers on the night shift are limited in their choices to vending machine junk food. A Swedish study has also found possible links between night work and heart disease, perhaps caused by work schedule stress.

It would be remiss to not mention the family and social bond disruptions caused by working at night. Night workers with children face a particularly rough dilemma. They can either participate in the lives of their children, forced to live dual lives perpetually deprived of a healthy amount of sleep, as the schedules of their children are inverted from their own, or they can try to find affordable, quality childcare, which is something they are not likely to find under the current system.

For these and other reasons, the labor movement has always been at the forefront of arguing for the complete abolition of night labor. During the Paris Commune of 1871, when the workers of Paris succeeded in overthrowing the capitalist government and organized the first embryo of a workers’ state, they felt it important enough to place a ban upon night labor in the bakeries. Leo Frankel, one of the participants in the Commune, stated that, “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?” (our emphasis) He was to declare the decree against unnecessary night labor “the only truly socialist decree passed by the Commune.”

The Bolsheviks considered the prohibition of night work to be of the utmost importance. In the heat of revolution, in June of 1917, they revised the party program to abolish night work between 8 pm to 6 am, extending the ban one hour further, while at the same time adding a provision stating that were night labor to be absolutely necessary for technical reasons, it should under no circumstances exceed four hours.

Based on infinitely more developed means of production than existed in tsarist Russia, a 21st Century Socialist USA, with a democratically planned economy could go even further in eliminating night work. But this will require that control of the means of production and of the state be in the hands of the working class. In the meantime, we must call for an end to night work. Workers should not be forced to place themselves at the risk of disease and disruption of their social lives for the profits of the bosses!

This article appeared on Socialist Appeal.

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This post was written by Josh Lucker

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