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Some Different Motivations for Wanting Shorter Hours of Work

The shorter-workweek movement began in the early 19th century. The Industrial Revolution had spawned a factory system that featured inhumane working conditions. To maximize profits, the factory owners worked their employees many hours in the day while paying low wages. By one account, a 14-hour day was typical in English factories, and in some cases it ranged as high as 16 to 18 hours. Women and children, too, worked those long hours.

Under such circumstances, one would imagine that the desire for shorter hours and more leisure was driven primarily by fatigue. Working people physically could not stand this punishing schedule of work. Among certain business owners and reform-minded politicians there was an idea that shorter work hours were a part of social progress. Robert Owen, owner of a cotton mill in Scotland, scheduled only 10.5 hours of work per day in his factory, compared with 13 to 14 hours in competing mills. Yet, Owen’s business prospered and its owner was widely admired. Approached by worker committees and clergy, the Earl of Shaftsbury sponsored legislation in Parliament to limit the work day to ten hours. This legislation finally passed in 1848.

The ten-hour day was the chief aim of worker activists in the first half of the 19th Century. In the second half, the goal was the eight-hour day. By this time, the labor movement had become more organized. The different craft unions continued to agitate for shorter hours, encouraged by the success of earlier efforts. Agitation for an eight-hour day gained in size and intensity in the period immediately following the U.S. Civil War. Congress passed an eight-hour bill in 1868 which President U.S. Grant signed into law; but it contained significant loopholes and was ineffective. The great May Day strike of 1886, focused on the eight-hour day, succeeded in winning this benefit, directly or indirectly, for 200,000 workers in the United States and Canada.

Under the leadership of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions and, later, the American Federation of Labor, workers in North America were flexing their muscles. More were working eight-hour days as a result of successful bargaining and strikes. The struggle was bitter. In the Colorado mining camps at Telluride and Cripple Creek, mine owners brought in soldiers to rouse workers from their homes, load them into box cars, and ship them out of the area. State and federal supreme courts declared bills setting limits on working hours to be unconstitutional. But the struggle continued. Not only were labor unions becoming well-established powers in society but a labor-oriented politics, international socialism, was a force to be reckoned with in the world.

By the early 20th Century, the eight-hour day appeared invincible both in America and Europe. It was codified as an international labor standard - the International Labor Organization’s Convention #1 - at a conference held in Washington D.C. in October 1919. Social improvers now set their sights on a five-day week, giving workers an extra day off on Saturdays. This goal began to be sought in the 1920s. Henry Ford implemented it in his automobile plants in 1926, while converting from Model-T production to production for the Model A.

By this time, the shorter workweek was supported for other reasons besides alleviation of worker fatigue. During economic recessions, workers argued that reduced work hours would provide work for more people. It was more humane to give everyone some work, even at the cost of income, than to cut some people off and let them starve. Given a certain amount of work needing to be done, employment could be increased if you cut hours.

Some employers, such as Henry Ford and Edward Filene, argued that shorter work hours were needed to increase business efficiency and reduce waste. They were needed to inspire increased consumer demand which, together with adequate incomes for workers, would increase the volume of products sold by businesses and increase their profits. There was, then, a holistic vision of economic processes in which working people were also the principal consumers. The economy would grow and prosper if both production and consumption were allowed to proceed at full speed.

The Great Depression of the 1930s put this theory to the test. Due to a lack of consumer confidence born of the stock-market crash, the volume of economic activity spiraled downward. Consumers bought fewer products, production was cut, workers lost their jobs, and consumer confidence was further weakened. There seemed to be no end to this process unless government intervened.

The shorter-workweek idea also lost luster during this period. First, it became associated with severe “work sharing” or the slicing of a shrinking pie into more pieces. This approach, advocated by President Hoover and even by President Roosevelt to a certain extent, was not enough to lift the country out of economic calamity and despair. Second, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the forty-hour week by legislation, provided for enforcement by financial penalties for scheduling workweeks longer than forty. Workers required to work those extra hours would be paid that one-and-one-half times their regular rate of pay. This legal requirement had the perverse effect of encouraging workers to work long hours. No longer were union members interested in shorter workweeks; they were also asking for their share of overtime work.

And so, after World War II, we had a strong union movement in the United States which was consistently winning improved wages and benefits for the members but was agitating less for shorter work hours. After the Depression, Americans felt like enjoying their material comfort and prosperity. Economists were telling them that they could have either increased wages or shorter work hours, not both. They, of course, chose the wages.

Business and government, the other two members of the decisionmaking triad, took the position that working people could have a shorter workweek if they made this a priority individually or in their collective-bargaining agreements. But, of course, individual workers were not in a position to choose how many hours they wished to work. Employers set the work schedule - and whoever was not satisfied with the offered terms of employment at this particular firm could look elsewhere. In reality, neither business nor government wanted working people to choose increased leisure over higher income. Their eyes were also on that money which workers might earn.

In the late 1950s, U.S. policymakers were beginning to wonder if the high rates of capital investment were beginning to displace workers and threaten the long-term structure of employment. Shorter working hours were proposed as an alternative to rising unemployment. It was a variation on the work-sharing scheme. In this case, however, one was not talking of slicing a fixed pie into more pieces but of maintaining employment as the economy expanded. “Automation” was replacing human labor with production done by machines. To preserve a role for human workers, the average amount of work for them needed to be cut.

The 1959 Special Committee on Unemployment , chaired by Senator Eugene McCarthy, considered the various options to deal with the threat to employment from machines and decided that remedies such as job-training programs be considered before the government took the more drastic step of reducing work hours. The door was left open to reconsider the question if the situation warranted it. In the 1960s, however, the federal government undertook new obligations such as Medicare, the War on Poverty, and the war in Vietnam. To have both “guns and butter”, America’s workers needed to stay on the job for longer, not shorter, periods of time. Workers in western Europe and Japan, however, could look forward to increases in leisure.

And so, in the last thirty years, U.S. workers have been stuck in work routines that involve steady or increasing work hours. Our policymakers would prefer to put the “superfluous population” on welfare than give working people a taste of more leisure. Education has been expanded as a holding tank for young people of uncertain job prospects. The burden is put on the person of working age to go back to school to retrain if he or she is laid off or becomes dissatisfied with what the job market is able to offer. The new threat of global competition is cited as a reason why the United States cannot consider shorter workweeks and such things. The “soft” American worker will just have to get used to working harder and smarter to keep the privileged place in the world which this worker already has.

There are still some labor activists who agitate for shorter hours. They are the same people who want to revitalize the labor movement - and for good reason. The labor movement was born of the struggle for a shorter work day. It remained strong so long as its sights were set on that aim. When union members instead sought continual pay increases for themselves, they gradually became differentiated from other working people. Union membership came to seen as a privileged situation of job incumbents, excluding other people. Continued agitation for shorter work hours, on the other hand, would improve work conditions for everyone by spreading employment to newcomers and setting new standards. It was an opportunity lost. As a result, union membership in the United States is down to 12%. Politically, organized labor is a shadow of what it once was in its more courageous, idealistic period.

There are, however, others, not in the labor movement , who promote the idea of a shorter workweek. I am one of them. What are their motives?

Speaking for myself, I see shorter workweek not only as an innovation that would create more personal opportunities but as a necessary step to preserve sound, productive employment. In the absence of reduced hours, the economy has shifted from producing goods and services which people want and need - food, clothing, and shelter, for starters - to producing goods and services which no one actually wants but which people feel compelled to have or which the government compels them to have. The Iraq war is just one example. The “neo-cons” gained President Bush’s ear and he gave them the war they wanted. Some interest group or another always wants something from the federal government; and to pay the taxes to support this, Americans must be kept working long hours. More prescription drugs, anyone?

My perspective on this situation would resemble that of the conservative who argued that cutting taxes would deny the government revenue to support all those “social programs” which liberals want. In this case, however, if we cut work hours, maybe we would not need so many social programs. People would have more time to take care of themselves and, more importantly, take care of their children, so that fewer in the next generation will become criminals or substance abusers. Simply put, the government cannot be trusted to use your time more wisely than you yourself could use it. Given more leisure, people would develop more creative lives, pursuing personal ambitions and spending more time with family and friends. Isn’t that better than working to pay taxes for what the government wants - the Iraq war? Wouldn’t that be personally more satisfying?

Another reason has to do with economic growth. Because of our limited natural environment, we cannot afford to pursue growth in the traditional ways, which waste scarce resources. If the economy must “grow” to provide jobs for everyone, it would then have to consume material resources at a faster rate. It’s possible, however, to have full employment at the same rate of material consumption, even for an expanding population, if working people work shorter hours. In this type of society, people would have the time to use products in the right way. They would have time to repair broken products instead of discarding them and buying replacements. New life styles based on materially simpler lives would relieve the burden which our human species puts on the earth.

And so, I am looking for a “better society” as I would imagine it. Shorter work hours are the untried solution to so many of our problems. There are many others in this world who have similar interests and views. There are, for instance, advocates of “Voluntary Simplicity”. These are people who, typically, have quit their jobs and made financial sacrifices but who have developed alternative modes of living that are materially simpler. Some do this for philosophical reasons; others, to rid themselves of the stress that they felt while pursuing traditional careers; still others, to strengthen family relationships or to do thing which they truly enjoy. This type of person would tend to be more intelligent, more educated, and, perhaps, financially better off than most people. For it is not everyone who can afford to make such a decision.

A related type of person would be the one who remains employed but chooses to be employed part time; or to take long vacations or sabbaticals. Such a person would tend to have unique skills or skills in high demand. The employer must tolerate “quirky” personal demands to retain the employee. One imagines a genius programmer who works for a software company at the height of the dot.com boom, or perhaps a technical person who works in the recording industry, or for an advertising agency, and is considered “the best”. That person can afford to make an honest personal choice between more income and more leisure where workers of lesser reputation or skill would simply be rebuffed. So it is the exceptional worker of unique talent, knowledge, or skill who might be considered a bastion of the new movement for shorter work hours.

I must admit that I tended to dismiss the latter possibility because it seemed that the economy as a whole must go for shorter hours if it is to have the impact required. Legislation to shorten the workweek, for instance, would significantly affect employment and the labor market. Could a large number of individual decisions by unusual persons, whether they be part-time creative workers or practitioners of voluntary simplicity, have a similar impact? Perhaps not; but the fact is that no one is currently proposing shorter workweek legislation. There is also no labor movement capable of pushing through such a measure. Therefore I will have to avoid the temptation to sneer at “elitist” personal experiments and accept progress wherever it might be found.

The fact is that our present ways have brought us to the point of possible financial or economic collapse. Whether or not economists and other powerful persons think a shorter workweek is economically feasible, we may soon be forced into doing something different. Why not, then, begin to think about the various possibilities? In this case, the government of the United States of America might abandon its imperial ambitions foisted upon the people by a narrow group of economic and political leaders and do what is best for the people.

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