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This Labor Day, Let’s Remember Labor’s Forgotten Fight—Shorter Hours and Control Over Work Time

We’re working more for less. Instead, we should fight to work less for more.

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Elevated view of members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in a Labor Day parade, Chicago, Illinois, May 1915. , Photo by Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Most Amer­i­cans are famil­iar with a clas­sic sto­ry of U.S. labor his­to­ry. Once we worked long and ardu­ous hours, with only min­i­mal con­trol over when we arrived at work and when we returned home. But then laws were passed to lim­it exces­sive labor, and we now enjoy a stan­dard­ized 40-hour week and a week­end — a just reward for our dai­ly grind won after a years-long strug­gle.

That sto­ry, while large­ly true, is incom­plete. The orig­i­nal cam­paign of the U.S. labor move­ment was to reduce work time with­out reduc­ing pay, and it was very suc­cess­ful. As late as the 1970s, many indus­tri­al work­ers enjoyed so much paid vaca­tion time they referred to it as a sab­bat­i­cal, and the pop­u­lar press warned that we were ​with­in strik­ing dis­tance” of a four-day week.

What most peo­ple don’t know is that after that cen­tu­ry-long decline, the annu­al hours we work have risen con­sid­er­ably since the 70s. Data from the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute show that work hours rose 13% from 1975 to 2016. Though the work­week remained rel­a­tive­ly sta­ble over this time, this change reflects an increase of about five addi­tion­al weeks per year.

Typ­i­cal­ly, the rich­er a coun­try is, the less time its cit­i­zens spend work­ing. But the Unit­ed States is dif­fer­ent. Though at mid­cen­tu­ry, Amer­i­cans worked less than Euro­peans, the sit­u­a­tion has dra­mat­i­cal­ly changed. In 2018, we worked on aver­age about five hours per week more than the French and one full day per week more than the Ger­mans.

The coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic has under­scored the demands that are made on work­ers’ time, as white-col­lar work­ers strug­gle to keep up with demand­ing jobs from home with­out child­care, health­care work­ers are dra­gooned into 247 shifts, and essen­tial work­ers are treat­ed like the on-demand ser­vices they pro­vide.

Pop­u­lar dis­cus­sions of over­work tend to focus on striv­ing pro­fes­sion­als, but it’s the hours of low-wage work­ers that have increased the most. The bot­tom 20% of wage earn­ers increased their annu­al hours by almost 25% since the late 70s, com­pared to just 3.6% by the high­est earn­ers, a shock­ing rever­sal of past trends. Still, as a result of ris­ing inequal­i­ty and the sink­ing of real wages, many work­ers today seek even longer hours, and sim­ply can’t afford to work less.

Some of these same work­ers — espe­cial­ly in retail, fast food, and hos­pi­tal­i­ty — suf­fer from irreg­u­lar sched­ules that are unpre­dictable by design, and often change at their employ­ers’ whims. Less than one quar­ter of hourly work­ers have a reg­u­lar stan­dard shift, while almost 60% have a vari­able sched­ule, a hap­pen­stance linked to emo­tion­al dis­tress, poor phys­i­cal health and oth­er hard­ships. Their hours are so fre­quent­ly cut or extend­ed that they can­not plan to live off one job but find it almost impos­si­ble to hold down two. These changes were not some­thing we vot­ed on. Instead, the unequal redis­tri­b­u­tion of our labor time reflects deep­en­ing eco­nom­ic inse­cu­ri­ty and social inequal­i­ty, the roots of which far pre-date the cur­rent pan­dem­ic.

Although short­er hours were once a hall­mark of social progress, today they sig­nal a cri­sis for low-income work­ers and their fam­i­lies. With record num­bers of Amer­i­cans out of work, and the gov­ern­ment with­hold­ing unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, it might seem tone-deaf to pro­mote short­er hours. Yet this is exact­ly the time such a move­ment has been his­tor­i­cal­ly use­ful.

Dur­ing past crises, such as dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, the gov­ern­ment imposed work-shar­ing pro­grams to guard against wide­spread unem­ploy­ment. The idea is sim­ple enough. Dur­ing eco­nom­ic down­turns, employ­ers and employ­ees agree to reduce the labor hours of a firm’s work­ers as opposed to lay­ing off a select few. Such pro­grams essen­tial­ly spread the income loss­es that occur dur­ing reces­sions or down­turns across a wider group of peo­ple, pre­vent­ing more dam­ag­ing con­se­quences, like the loss of a job.

Rather than just real­lo­cate work time, how­ev­er, the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic requires a bold plan to allow more peo­ple to live in dig­ni­ty with much less work. To do that, we must dis­en­tan­gle health­care from employ­ment.

A Medicare for All pro­gram, per­haps the most con­tentious issue now divid­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, is a strate­gic part of the fight for short­er work hours. Health­care is close­ly tied to the time we spend at work, as 49% of Amer­i­cans receive insur­ance through their employ­er. Min­i­mum hour eli­gi­bil­i­ty require­ments for cov­er­age and high out-of-pock­et expens­es keep work­ers locked into long work sched­ules just to receive med­ical care.

Bar­gain­ing over health­care and relat­ed ben­e­fits is a dri­ver of stag­nat­ing wages and long hours. Since the 70s, unions have nego­ti­at­ed high­er ben­e­fits such as health­care instead of wages, dri­ving up the fixed costs per work­er. This incen­tivizes employ­ers to press for longer hours from work­ers rather than hire oth­ers, who would also require ben­e­fits. The val­ue of fringe ben­e­fits almost dou­bled over the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry, ris­ing from 17% of pay in 1955 to 32% of pay in 2020.

For the past two decades, health­care has been a con­stant drag on union con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, as employ­ers con­tin­ue to shift health­care costs onto work­ers. Health­care dis­putes have become the lead­ing insti­ga­tor of strikes, lock­outs and con­ces­sion­ary bar­gain­ing. Dur­ing strikes, employ­ers often freeze health insur­ance and pen­sion ben­e­fits to try to force work­ers to con­cede. A Medicare for All sys­tem would cost employ­ers this pow­er­ful lever­age they hold by guar­an­tee­ing work­ers’ health­care, allow­ing unions to focus on bar­gain­ing for oth­er ben­e­fits such as high­er pay and short­er hours.

Health­care reform isn’t the only way to get to short­er hours. The Fair Labor Stan­dards Act offers only mod­est enforce­ment of sched­ul­ing and work time reg­u­la­tions — and it hasn’t been ade­quate­ly updat­ed in decades. Lift­ing the exemp­tions on salaried work­ers, increas­ing enforce­ment and elim­i­nat­ing manda­to­ry over­time pay are all ways to incen­tivize employ­ers to hire more peo­ple rather than over­work exist­ing employ­ees.

Many coun­tries have attained few­er work­ing hours through pro­vi­sions for guar­an­teed fam­i­ly and med­ical leave, legal­ly man­dat­ed vaca­tion time, more sick leave and greater unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits. These poli­cies would cer­tain­ly reduce work time too, espe­cial­ly for women, who still per­form more unpaid domes­tic labor, and who are over­rep­re­sent­ed in part-time work.

All of these pol­i­cy reforms are unlike­ly with­out a strong labor move­ment to fight for them. After all, it took a cen­tu­ry-long strug­gle by work­ers to win the eight-hour day, even if it’s less com­mon now than we think. We need a mass move­ment to win greater col­lec­tive con­trol over work time — a return to labor’s for­got­ten fight.

The fair sched­ul­ing move­ment has won leg­isla­tive vic­to­ries in six states, which cov­er almost 2 mil­lion work­ers, grant­i­ng them the right to a more just and pre­dictable work sched­ule. It’s a use­ful exam­ple of how strug­gles over work time today aren’t pri­mar­i­ly about increas­ing leisure, but con­trol­ling the exist­ing hours we have.

The mea­sure of any soci­ety lies in how it treats its work­ers. Com­bine long hours for some, insuf­fi­cient hours for oth­ers, and errat­ic sched­ules with decades of flat or declin­ing wages, and it becomes clear that work­ers in the Unit­ed States are giv­ing far more to the econ­o­my than they’re get­ting in return.

It’s often said that the Amer­i­can Dream is bro­ken and must be repaired. But we now have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to dream big­ger than sim­ply breath­ing life into an old vision. Instead, we should redesign our work lives so that trad­ing most of our wak­ing hours for mon­ey isn’t the only path­way to a dig­ni­fied life.

Jamie K. McCal­lum is assis­tant pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege. His book Glob­al Unions, Local Pow­er, won the best book award from the Amer­i­can Soci­o­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion in 2014. Frances Fox Piv­en was his PhD dis­ser­ta­tion adviser.