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The Price Of Time

Trade Unions

The price of time

A crusade to reduce the working week: could this be the most practical way of uniting Red and Green?
Anders Hayden holds out the prospect of more ‘wealth in time’.

There’s no rest for labour activist Mike Delacour on this sunny Saturday morning in Berkeley, California. He’s pounding the pavement collecting signatures in support of a municipal law that would introduce a 35-hour working week. ‘It’s time we put a shorter work-week back on the agenda,’ he says.

Delacour knows he has a hard struggle ahead, but he is inspired by recent developments in Europe. In October 1997 France’s Government of Socialists, Communists and Greens announced that a 35-hour work- week would be implemented by 1 January 2000. A few days later, Italy pledged to do the same by the year 2001. Belgium’s unions and francophone Socialists soon got into the spirit of things by endorsing a four-day week. Early this year a nationwide strike in Denmark centred on the demand for reduced work time – in the form of a sixth week of paid vacation. In May, IG Metall, the powerful German metalworkers’ union, announced a campaign to reduce the work-week from the current 35 hours to 32. Spain’s two main union confederations made a joint call for a 35-hour week in June, and the city of Madrid agreed to implement it for municipal workers. Interest in the issue is growing among unions and left-of-centre political parties in other industrialized countries, like Canada and Australia.

The historical goals of job creation and improved quality of life are at the forefront of the new debate – in the North at least. Joining them are new gender issues arising from the dramatic growth of female participation in the labour market. Less visible, but equally important, are ecological concerns and the need for a new model of development. By linking these issues, reduced work time is a focal point for a new Left-Green politics that emphasizes social justice, quality of life and ecological sustainability.

In the South, a 32- or 35-hour week may seem very far from everyday reality. But it is still relevant. The Majority World also has its own struggles to reduce working hours. South Africa, for instance, recently limited the work-week to 45 hours, with a future target of 40. Lifetime work hours can also be reduced by eliminating child labour and introducing retirement and pension rights.

Working hours have always been a central issue in industrial societies. One of the first bitter fruits of industrialization is that they increase dramatically. Labourers in fourteenth-century Britain worked about 29 hours a week but by the beginning of the Industrial Revolution weekly hours above 70 were common. In response, working people sought free time to protect their health and dignity. The first May Day demonstrations in North America and Europe took place in the 1890s to demand an eight-hour day. A labour-movement anthem at the time called for ‘eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will’. International Women’s Day dates back even further, to 1857, when female garment workers in New York protested about their abysmal working conditions, including 12-hour days.

Another goal was to create jobs by redistributing available work. In the words of Samuel Gompers, an American labour leader at the turn of the century: ‘As long as there is one man [sic] who seeks employment and cannot find it, the hours of work are too long.’ The twin desires for jobs and time away from them are every bit as relevant today. In many countries there is an intensifying polarization between a stressed-out majority with jobs and large numbers of unemployed and underemployed people.

The dramatic increase in the number of women with paid jobs has created new challenges for many working families. While one parent used to work 40 hours a week outside the home, now parents often have a combined 80-hour work-week. This has meant much greater stress for those trying to balance the demands of paid work and home. The answer is not, as some conservatives would have it, to send women home. Instead, opportunities for women can be improved by challenging the dominance of the ‘male career model’ based on long hours.

Meanwhile, awareness of environmental limits has increased. Alain Lipietz, economic spokesperson for the French Green Party, argues that ‘the reduction of work time is at the core of ecological economics’.

The conventional response to unemployment has been to try to rev up the growth machine. But much of that growth is ecologically destructive and no longer provides an answer to the job problems of the North.

By way of contrast, the Dutch Central Planning Bureau recently concluded that the Green Left Party’s call for a shorter work-week – along with using taxes on pollution and profits to finance more public-sector jobs – was the most effective election platform for reducing unemployment.

We can benefit from the increasing ‘productivity’ of labour in two very different ways. We can produce more in the same amount of time – or we can produce the same amount in less time and have more free time and a higher quality of life. In a world of ecological limits, the North must shift the balance from the former to the latter. If Northern citizens are to accept the need for consumption sufficiency, the promise of greater ‘wealth in time’ will be an important alternative to more ‘wealth in goods’.

This option would also create opportunities for those seeking ‘voluntary simplicity’ by consuming less and living more. The Dutch Green Left is currently campaigning for a legislated right to shorter hours. German thinker Wolf-gang Sachs has argued that such measures would open up new possibilities for ‘economic underachievers’ by allowing incomes to be shaped according to need. Workers would be able to ask not how much they could earn if they worked as much as possible, but how much they need to work to meet their basic needs.

Historically, the push for shorter hours included a desire for time to read, learn, carry out the responsibilities of citizenship and participate in social change. Today, a reduction of work time could greatly benefit a green and progressive politics as it seeks to resist the neo-liberal onslaught and promote positive alternatives.

You may ask whether any of this is possible with today’s fierce global competition. The short answer is ‘yes’ – but the pressures of competition limit what is possible in any individual country. Despite campaigning for 35 hours without loss in pay, the French Government has left the question of wage levels to workplace negotiation. Workers are being asked to moderate their salary demands, and to be open to cost-saving reorganization in return for shorter hours. There are also substantial monetary incentives for companies that reduce hours and hire more workers, financed out of savings to government when the unemployed are hired for these new jobs.

For ordinary people to benefit, the international labour movement must be strong enough to get a fair share for workers – something that has rarely happened in recent years as business has pocketed most of the economic gains. But labour must also shift its bargaining priorities toward more free time and creating new jobs, which in practice means paying less attention to wage increases.

This is not always popular. Insecurity can drive workers to seek extra income while they can get it, even when fellow workers are unemployed. Consumerist values are another obstacle. On a Toronto call-in radio show recently, my suggestion of reducing hours to create jobs was met with an angry response: ‘I like having my toys and I want to work overtime to have them. Who are you to tell me that I can’t?’

The question of what happens to wages when work hours are reduced is also likely to be a source of controversy between Red and Green. Labour unions and the Left have, with some exceptions, traditionally called for reduced work time without loss in pay. Greens, however, have challenged the idea that high incomes and consumption are essential to the good life. They are generally more open to considering some loss in pay – at least for high-income earners – in return for more free time and new jobs.

If the full promise of reduced work time is to be achieved, an international movement is needed to challenge an economic order that puts the dictates of the market and private profit above human needs, social cohesion and ecological sustainability. The possibility of reducing unemployment, improving the quality of life for the employed, enhancing gender equality and putting ecological questions of ‘how much is enough?’ on the table makes this a key issue for building alliances between the labour, environmentalist, feminist and other social movements. It could be one of the most useful ways to mobilize people around a very different vision.

Back in Berkeley, sufficient signatures have now been gathered to put the 35-hour question on this November’s local ballot. It will be a big challenge to convince people in workaholic, free-market America to vote for it, but Mike Delacour figures it’s worth the effort. In his view, ‘a reduction of the work-week anywhere is a gain for working people everywhere’.

Anders Hayden is the Research & Policy Co-ordinator for 32 HOURS:
Action for Full Employment
238 Queen Street West, Lower Level,
Toronto, ON, M5V 1Z7, Canada.
Tel: 416 392 1658. Fax: 416 392 6650.
e-mail: [email protected]

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New Internationalist issue 307 magazine cover This article is from the November 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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