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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.

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.

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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.