Illustration by Derrick Chow

Working for the Weekend

The labour movement should renew its demands for a shorter workweek

Our communities are crumbling under capitalism and the obscene inequalities it creates. Income inequality has steadily risen in Canada over the past 20 years. The threat of climate change is becoming ever more obvious while environmental policies progress more slowly than melting glaciers. While workers in Canada are waging vital campaigns such as the Fight for $15 to improve wages for those who are paid the least, the mobilization around fairer compensation is just one part of the struggle to resist workers’ exploitation.

One of the oldest rallying cries of the labour movement is to reduce the time that workers spend working.

The now-normalized 40-hour workweek and eight-hour workday were themselves the wins of workers’ struggles. Workers in the industrialized capitalist countries have been pushing for fewer working hours since the Industrial Revolution, in part to escape noxious work conditions and gain more autonomy over life and its pleasures and responsibilities. Steven J. Ross, a history professor at the University of Southern California, points out that reducing work time was incremental: “During the 1830s, wage earners demanded to work ten hours instead of the more customary twelve hours; during the 1860s, they demanded to work eight hours instead of ten hours; during the 1880s they demanded to work five and a half days instead of six days; and during the 1930s, they demanded a thirty hour, five day work week.” For those performing alienated labour in factories and other industrialized workplaces, shorter hours were seen as compensation for jobs that were at best tedious and at worst hazardous.

The now-normalized 40-hour workweek and eight-hour workday were themselves the wins of workers’ struggles.

In the mid-1940s, the rank-and-file of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) began demanding 30 hours of work for 40 hours of pay. The demand made the labour bureaucracy nervous about disrupting the post-war labour consensus, which, on the one hand, had guaranteed its collective bargaining rights, but on the other, constrained union dissent. The economic recession of the 1950s chilled the radical call for a reduced workweek, and ultimately the UAW settled for higher wages rather than fewer working hours.

Well over a century after the 1886 Haymarket massacre in Chicago, in which striking workers were brutally repressed for their demand of an eight-hour workday, many workers still toil far longer than eight hours a day to make ends meet.

Reducing the workweek brings labour back to its roots, and can unite traditional labour with environmentalists, and feminists, students, and community organizations. It’s a demand that can drastically cut carbon emissions and markedly improve our health. Challenging ourselves to re-examine the 40-hour workweek and the eight-hour day raises critical questions about how we value our time, our paid and unpaid labour, and leisure itself.

In 2011, scholars Linda Duxbury and Christopher Higgins revisited their earlier national studies (conducted in 1991 and 2001) on Canadian work-life balance. Duxbury and Higgins’ study skewed toward highly educated workers with higher incomes, mainly employed in professional or managerial positions. They found that the typical respondent was spending 50.2 hours per week in work-related activities. Just over half of the employees they surveyed also reported taking work home after hours. Unsurprisingly, the study also reported significant increases in stress, and declines in mental and physical health. Duxbury and Higgins recommended flexible work arrangements and changing the distribution of workloads in order to make work-life balance more realistic.

Against compression and pay cuts

In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour workweek by 2030. While we are nowhere near that goal, the idea of flexible working arrangements has gained ground worldwide, albeit often with strings attached. A number of European countries, including France, the Netherlands, and Germany, have legislated shorter hours, and some have experimented with reduced hours during the workday and workweek. In Sweden, for instance, companies participated in a trial from 2015 to 2017 to reduce the workday to six hours, though the results were mixed.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s in Canada, in the aftermath of two recessions, interest in shortening the workweek flared. In 1994, Human Resources Development Canada published the findings of the Advisory Group on Working Time and the Distribution of Work. The task force found that 35 per cent of respondents preferred a shortened workweek over earlier retirement and longer breaks. However, as economist Armine Yalnizyan, who served on the advisory group, explains, “the report was eclipsed by an ambitious state-cutting enterprise on the part of the government,” making Canada “the poster child for austerity” and completely shelving the idea of redistributing work time.

Recent experiments with work time reduction have largely been market-based and employer-commissioned. One such arrangement in Canada sees workers “earn” days off by working longer hours over fewer days. Alternatively, workers can take a pay cut for fewer hours worked (Amazon recently dangled a voluntary 20–25 per cent pay cut for their employees as a trade for a day off). Work-sharing arrangements are also heralded as a righteous way to prevent job cuts. None of these options reduce work hours without compromising wages, yet they are championed by “job creators” masquerading as benefactors.

Where companies introduce a four-day workweek, as in the case of the U.K. company Think Productive, staff members are still required to work an extra hour each day and a full five-day week once a month.

There are some marginally better examples of reducing the workweek. The software company Basecamp (formerly 37signals) has a “seasonal approach” – a 32-hour workweek for the four months between May and August. In France, following the early 1990s recession, Hewlett-Packard kept its plant running 24 hours a day, tripling production, while people worked fewer hours on shifts with no loss of pay. Italy, along with other European countries, has been considering a four-day workweek: a politician in northern Italy estimated that 200,000 jobs could be created in his region alone merely by implementing such a policy.

But employer-initiated concessions are not the same as worker-won labour rights that are enshrined in law and made available to all workers across industries and sectors. Nor do they transform workers’ control of their labour, instead protecting the conditions that maximize productivity for capitalists.

Beyond compression

Rearranging the existing 40-hour standard of work time has entrenched the idea that there is no alternative: reduced hours come only with lower wages. A successful fight for a shorter workweek entails jettisoning certain assumptions of value. The dominant neoclassical economic tendency is to see labour and leisure as discrete units with mathematical equilibrium. Tom Walker, a lecturer of labour studies at Simon Fraser University, points out that the “lump of labour” theory of work, wherein every hour yields an equally valuable amount of productivity and each hour of leisure equates to idleness, is a fallacy assuming that “a worker sells … 24 hours to the employer and buys back 16 hours of leisure at the same rate the employer pays him for the 24 hours.” This doesn’t reflect how work gets performed.

Neoclassical economists such as Léon Walras, Walker explains, upheld “the idea that leisure is somehow inherently valuable to the person experiencing the leisure. That means that being unemployed is as good as going to the beach. We’re faced with a completely fictional economics.”

Rearranging the existing 40-hour standard of work time has entrenched the idea that there is no alternative: reduced hours come only with lower wages.

Walker is sharply critical of the complicity of many economists in supporting and perpetuating the frame that for “ordinary working people, what they face is a given set of wages and hours… If you’re making $15/hour and working a 40-hour workweek, the idea of going to a reduced workweek is frightening because you can’t pay your rent. […] Economists have reinforced this notion that what the employers are currently paying is the market rate.”

Time as a feminist issue

Transforming work time is not about creating “empty” time or idleness – after all, non-work time is not always the same as leisure, as the women of the world who perform unpaid domestic labour know well. Economists Ellen Mutari and Deborah Figart found that, in Finland (one of the first countries to legislate the eight-hour day and to experiment with the six-hour workday between 1996 and 1998), reduced work time improved the lives of working women. “Enabling people to balance work and family responsibilities is a prerequisite for gender equity,” they wrote. “While the United States and many other countries have promoted part-time jobs for mothers, this strategy tends to create female job ghettoes, such as part-time and low-paid jobs in clerical, cleaning, and food-service occupations. In contrast, shortening the work week for everyone creates good jobs for working people….” In 1988, feminist politician and academic Marilyn Waring introduced a founding principle of feminist economics: time, rather than GDP as assessed by the market, is a far more accurate way to measure and value the unpaid work that women do globally. (For more of Waring’s work, see the excellent 1995 NFB documentary, Who’s Counting? Sex, Lies and Global Economics.)

Waring introduced a founding principle of feminist economics: time, rather than GDP as assessed by the market, is a far more accurate way to measure and value the unpaid work that women do globally.

Unpaid caregiving labour – overwhelmingly performed by women and long referred to as the second shift – intensifies gendered work exploitation. Women also report higher levels of stress and depression, absence from work, and more frequent recourse to physicians. Reducing work time, then, is a feminist imperative.

Working less for the planet

Canadian economist Peter Victor argues in his book, Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, not Disaster, that a reduced workweek and redistribution of labour are also essential parts of the climate change solution. Experiments in some U.S. municipalities showed that cutting one day of work significantly lowered the carbon emissions caused by commutes and energy consumption. A 2013 report by David Rosnick of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research concluded that reducing work hours by an average of 0.5 per cent annually over the next century “would eliminate about one-quarter to one-half of the global warming that is not already locked in (i.e. warming that would be caused by 1990 levels of greenhouse gas concentrations already in the atmosphere).” Rosnick’s model relies on the idea that productivity gains would be shared and that income inequality would diminish, meaning that workers would be no worse off for the reduction. Societies like ours, with wealth hoarders, however, need a broader revolution in how we think of both paid and unpaid work. As Yalnizyan cautions, work time might be the step we take after first addressing the conditions of the most exploited workers in our society: “The first part of the conversation has to be the dollar value of an hour’s labour… raising consciousness on the value of all work. People are not getting paid enough, particularly the lowest paid.”

The demand for reduced work hours may sound like an impossible dream, but as the austerity agenda plays out, Yalnizyan says, it’s a good time to start the conversation about time use and to dust off the initiatives that were taking us in that direction prior to the state’s shift to austerity.

“In the coming decade, we are going to have a labour squeeze and people are going to need time,” she says. Reducing our working time in addition to fighting to raise wages not only undermines capitalist exploitation, particularly of women and caregivers, but addresses aspects of the climate change strategy, and affords us opportunities to organize and challenge oppressions on other fronts. Demanding a reduced workweek is part of the militant history of organized labour. In the tradition of international workers’ history, we should revisit this struggle once again.

Aalya Ahmad holds a doctorate in comparative literary studies and has been an environmental, feminist, and trade union activist for over two decades. She’s always up for a good struggle.

Tags:   labour unions workplace rights