Societies that value their workers tend to enshrine protections for their workers’ health into law. One of the most common protection, but foreign even in an ideological sense to the United States, is paid or even subsidized vacation. In the Soviet Union, all workers received 2 weeks of paid vacation and workers in the more dangerous industries received 4 weeks of paid vacation. Cuba gives its state employees a month of paid vacation and guarantees a week of paid vacation to private sector employees. In Bolivia you receive 15 days of vacation your first 5 years of work, 20 days your second five years, and 30 days if you have worked more than 10 years. The wealthier social democracies of Europe give even more expansive vacation to their citizens, the most infamous example being Italy as documented in Michael Moore’s most recent movie. In many of these countries, the vacation is not seen as a luxury, but rather as preventative medicine, and medical professionals are often present at the various resorts and spas to guide the visiting workers in how to relieve the various mental and physical stresses that have built up from their labor. And despite being dominated by the influence of for-profit companies, most medical journals agree that there are enormous health benefits to regularly taking vacation.In the United States, there is no guarantee of vacation whatsoever enshrined into the public law. What vacation does exist comes from competitive professional contracts and, for working class people, collective bargaining agreements (CBA). Yet in 2011, 57% of workers in the US had unused vacation time. The corporate media was quick to attribute this to the workers themselves: that they simply do not want to take a vacation. How odd that in this regard the media thinks the workers do not want time off, and yet when it comes to sick leave it is assumed that any worker utilizing it must be “abusing” the system.
Every worker wants to be able to take a vacation. Even in this late stage of capitalism where everything has been sublimated into a constant, 24/7 circulation of capital, it is a function of our physical and psychological limitations that we all want a break. Workers want vacation: they just believe that they either cannot take it (even if they “have” it) or that they do not “deserve” it. Both of these result from the conscientiously implemented framing of vacation by the law in the United States. And this framing goes well beyond the lack of formal guarantees by the State for vacation to attacking the vacation won in CBAs by unions.
The case of Reichold Chemicals, Inc. (66 LA 745) provides a good example of this framing. As I have previously written about, the right to strike in the United States is strongly curtailed, and one of the few situations where it can be used without drastic repression is when there has been a failure to negotiate a new contract with the employer. And that’s what the workers at Reichold did, which resulted in them obtaining a new agreement. However, the day after the new CBA was ratified, the employer posted the following on its bulletin board:
There have been some inquiries as to exactly what the vacation policy is for 1975. Here is what has been decided:
For those with 15 years or more of service, you are allowed 120 hours vacation in the remainder of 1975.
For those with 9 years or more, you are allowed 90 hours.
For those with more than one year, you are allowed 60 hours.
Your supervisor will begin to schedule vacations as soon as he has all the information needed from you as to time preferences.
The CBA contained a provision for vacation that gave employees two weeks of vacation after one year’s service, to be taken within six months of the completion. In other words, the employees were deducted 9, 11, and 12 days of vacation respectively. And when the union took this to arbitration, the arbitrator ruled in Reichold Chemicals favor.
The root of this decision is one that Arbitrator Paul D. Jackson clearly emphasized himself by giving the sentence its own paragraph: “Vacations are recognized as a form of deferred wages.” The employees had been on strike – they had been refusing to work and thus to accumulate wages. Arbitrator Jackson wrote that this definition should be used to frame the language of the contract that vacation was earned after the worker “had completed one year of employment” [emphasis by Jackson].
First it is important to recognize what this argument says about strikes themselves. Strikes are, indeed, periods in which wages are not earned (except in the rare circumstances where backpay is awarded after the fact). But why were wages not earned? Because a contract could not be reached. In the relationship between employer and employees, going on strike is the only real power they have outside the law. While certainly some enjoy the passion and strategy that goes into a strike, it is generally a measure utilized when there is an impass. And it is laborious itself and even the larger unions only have so much in their strike funds. If the Norris-La Guardia Act and other labor laws were actually followed as written, going on strike in such situations should be seen as part of completing a year’s work rather than foregoing it.
But let’s return to vacations. Marx’s labor theory of value is instrumental for understanding the importance of this US idea of vacations as “deferred wages.” The labor theory of value posits that capital accumulation is made possible by the extraction of surplus value from the circuit of capital. That surplus value is created by labor – labor is what separates a pile of coltan, gold, and other materials from an iPhone. The other means of production, machines and other tools, are depreciating investments: necessary to produce the product, but not what is responsible for the generated value. Even the highest levels of automation currently available still would not create any value without a worker pressing the “go” button, making the necessary repairs, etc.
Although workers produce the value, they only retain part of that value in the form of a wage so that a profit can still be generated. This is why Marx called wage labor exploitation: it was inherently robbing workers of the value they created. Let’s take this conception of a wage and apply it to the idea of vacation as a “deferred wage.” First off, it is important to recognize that under capitalism the wage of workers including benefits will always be lower than the value they create: if it fails to be, the company will not generate a profit and will go out of business.
The perverse genius of vacation as “deferred wages” is that it allows the firm to stratify the already unfair compensation. This stratification is profitable for the same reason that gift cards are: if people do not use all of it, a profit is made, and as mentioned earlier 57% of US workers do not use all of it. It also gives firms the time to find reasons to deduct or deny that vacation time as the company did in Reichold Chemicals.
But even more importantly that the extra profits that vacation-as-wages generates is that it helps to spur the continuation of the circuit of capital. And that more than any realized present cost is why Reichold prorated the vacation of its workers. It was punishment, dehumanization meant to make workers think twice before they ever went on strike again. For those of raised in the United States, “dehumanization” may seem a drastic word to describe the denial of vacation time, but few things more accurately could be described as such. Wage labor is not humane. It is profoundly alienating. And even under socialism, labor is not the totality of life. That is so basic that few would deny it – and yet, when workers are reduced to inputs in an equation to generate the most profit possible, that reality slips away.
Under late stage capitalism, workers are increasingly told to seek out the benefits found in vacation in “self-care.” As B. Loewe writes, this takes care out of the community and places it on the individual:
As long as self-care is discussed as an individual responsibility and additional task, it will be something that middle-class people with leisure time will most easily relate to and will include barriers to the lives of people without time to spare. It becomes one more unchecked box on a to-do list to feel bad about, an unreal expectation, or a far-off dream… Capital’s vision for our lives is one where we are alienated from our work and from each other. Where non-profit jobs mirror for-profit jobs and both end in take-out and television. Where we mirror the lives of our opposition; long hours of work, eat out, come home drained, watch television, collapse, repeat. Replacing the television in that cycle with yoga or bodywork does not address the alienation at the core of it.
While it is great that some unions are able to garner vacation benefits for their members, it will always be a subpar kind of vacation because of the framing as “deferred wages.” To frame it otherwise will require more systemic change. In the immediate sense this means fighting for federally guaranteed vacation. But ultimately that will only transfer vacation from being a “deferred wage” to being part of the “social safety net” always at risk of neoliberal austerity (something that is catching up to those social democracies’ generous vacation protections).
Workers will only be able to enjoy fulfilling and healthy lives when vacation is neither a wage nor a “public benefit,” but a fundamental guarantee of collective governance under socialism.