We Need a Shorter Workweek to Free Us From the Tyranny of Work
The Monday-to-Friday working week that many of us see as normal or natural is in fact a social and historical achievement, and one that is still unevenly distributed — with workers in many parts of the world laboring around the clock, seven days a week, for almost nothing. The free time that we enjoy in much of the Global North is the result of victories achieved by workers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
It was the Australian stonemasons that first won the eight-hour day in 1856. While building an ever expanding Melbourne, James Stephens and his colleagues had had enough of the grueling ten-hour workdays, and so at a meeting of fellow construction workers, they concluded that “the time has arrived when the system of eight hours should be introduced into the building trades.”
This demand took more than mere words however. On April 21, Stephens and colleagues walked off the job at the University of Melbourne in order to march to the Belvedere Hotel, picking up other construction workers on the way to join their endeavor. Fittingly, their show of strength ended with a banquet at the hotel itself — where the manual laborers could revel in their collective stand. Following months of talks with their employers, their demand was met — as reported in the local Herald:
[The masons] have succeeded, at least in all the building trades in enforcing [the eight-hour day] without effort. The employers have found it necessary . . . to give in, and without struggle; agreeing, we believe, to pay the same amount of wages as formerly for ten hours’ labour.
The celebration of this historic victory for workers – known initially as the “Eight Hours Procession” — was commemorated for ninety-five years and ultimately became synchronized with international “Labor Day” celebrations.
The stonemasons’ example — alongside many other struggles over working time throughout history — can teach us at least two things: first, that our freedom from the hardships of work is rarely, if ever, given to us; it must be demanded and fought for. Second, it suggests that working time reduction is an aspiration of working people in whatever form of employment, in whatever epoch of capitalism.
Working Time Is Still the Issue
Yet this struggle over the time we spend at work is not one that has been consigned to the past. Once again, the fight for a shorter working week is back on the political agenda.
Politicians across the Global North have in recent years reignited the political debate, not least congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States, prime minister Sanna Marin in Finland, former shadow chancellor John McDonnell in the UK, and prime minister Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. Trade unions such as IG Metall [Industriegewerkschaft Metall, Industrial Union of Metal Workers] in Germany, the Communication Workers Union in the UK, and Fórsa in Ireland were all in the middle of campaigns for hours reductions before the COVID-19 pandemic caused mass unemployment. And even more trade unions have joined the chorus since.
The shorter working week is no longer a fringe campaign; instead, it is a central aspect of the renewal of socialist politics that has taken place in the past decade.
The renewed impetus that campaigns for a shorter working week are currently experiencing has come about in the context of a degraded labor market. If “hard work” at your job ever guaranteed an improvement in your situation, this is far from assured now. Over the past few decades, the share of national income going to wages and salaries has declined, while the share going to capital has expanded, meaning that simply owning assets such as shares or housing is a more expedient route to economic success; “earning” a living is an anachronistic term.
Research has shown that over time and across the globe, a higher capital share (and lower labor share) is linked with higher inequality in terms of the distribution of personal incomes. As it stands in the UK, around 12 percent of the population owns 50 percent of private wealth. Unsurprisingly, some are calling this new economy “rentier capitalism,” where those who inherit wealth or simply own assets thrive and where “work does not pay” for the many.
Workers are getting a raw deal in more subtle ways, too. They put in large amounts of unpaid overtime; are commuting for longer than they were even just ten years ago; are earning less in real terms than they have for over a decade; and are suffering remarkable levels of in-work poverty. The number of precarious jobs — those that cannot guarantee a secure livelihood — has risen sharply this century, with over one million zero-hour contracts deployed in 2017 and bogus “self-employment” taking basic rights away from workers.
There are indications that the COVID-19 pandemic will only exacerbate this increase in “non-standard” work. Deliveroo and Amazon — both notoriously poor employers — have announced the creation of thousands of new jobs, partly as a consequence of high street retailers and food outlets closing due to lockdown. As well as a scarcity of decent work for some, there is an abundance of work-driven burnout for many others. According to statistics from the British government, over half of all sick absences in the UK are due to work-related stress, anxiety or depression, with workload being the number one reason given for these afflictions.
Traditionally, it has been the role of organized labor to prevent the degradation of labor and push for a better world of work. It is no accident that during the period when we saw significant reduction in working time — the interwar years in both the UK and United States — trade union membership was high, and their remits were radical.
During the 1980s, there was a sustained political project across much of the Global North to smash the collective power of workers. Following this, the space in which workers could have a say in how the labor market is run, and in whose interest, has been significantly squeezed. Consecutive, regressive labor legislation in the UK such as the Employment Act (1980) and the Trade Union Act (1984), as well as the present failure to clamp down on the bogus self-employment enacted by platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo, have contributed to the neutering of progressive labor market reform, and have meant that once-traditional trade union demands for such working-time reduction have become increasingly remote from the mainstream agenda.
It has been estimated that the UK is now the country with the second-lowest level of collective bargaining coverage in Europe. Today, coverage could perhaps be as low as 20 percent, in comparison to over 70 percent in the 1960s and 1970s. This decline has been facilitated in large part by hostile policy: even Tony Blair once remarked that British law on trade unions is the “most restrictive in the Western World.”
In short, modern work — particularly, but not exclusively, in the United States and UK — has reached new lows in terms of working conditions, the types of jobs available, and the decision-making power that working people have in the workplace. Perhaps, in this sense, we are again closer to Friedrich Engels’s 1845 Condition of the Working Class in England, a devastating investigation of the extreme poverty and social deprivation endured by the working class in Victorian England, a work that was tragically mirrored in 2018 by a United Nations report examining extreme poverty and human rights in the UK.
England, a work that was tragically mirrored in 2018 by a United Nations report examining extreme poverty and human rights in the UK.
Server Danielle Pyle works at the Wyomissing Restaurant and Bakery in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, on February 26, 2021. (Ben Hasty / MediaNews Group / Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
The report’s author, professor Philip Alston, articulated the way in which the labor market, and social security system that underpins it, have resulted in extreme levels of poverty and social deprivation:
14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50 per cent below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7 per cent rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40 per cent. For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.
Many of the harrowing stories outlined in Engels’s description of life in Victorian Britain are replicated in Alston’s accounts of minimum-wage work and welfare “support,” epitomized by the rollout of the benefit payment Universal Credit. Rather than alleviating poverty and providing freedom and security to its citizens, work in twenty-first-century Britain is defined by insecure contracts, punitive surveillance, and a wage that doesn’t meet the basic needs of life:
Low wages, insecure jobs, and zero-hour contracts mean that even at record unemployment there are still 14 million people in poverty . . . One pastor said “The majority of people using our food bank are in work. . . . Nurses and teachers are accessing food banks.”
In circumstances like this, overwork becomes a necessary condition for survival, with those in the UK working the third-highest number of hours in Europe. Much of our devotion to work hinges on a certain cultural norm, and a restricted political imagination, whereby work is regarded as not only being a good in and of itself but also a condition of individual health and social well-being. David Frayne calls this the “employment dogma,” which often makes a link between employment and good health being somehow natural or innate to human flourishing. What’s clear from history, however, is that without significant collective organizing and political regulation, the labor market fails in delivering a robust mechanism for economic security and freedom to all.
We must therefore recognize that mere employment cannot be considered a sufficient condition for providing individual health and economic security alone. Work’s ability to aid human flourishing should only be considered sufficient if it can provide the social conditions that would allow all humans to cooperate, structure their time, achieve a sense of dignity, and obtain the necessary material means to live in a safe and secure environment.
A “Multi-Dividend” Policy
In advocating for a shorter working week, Rutger Bregman poses the following provocation: “What does working less actually solve? Perhaps it’s better to turn this question around and ask: Is there anything that working less does not solve?” In our new book, Overtime: Why We Need a Shorter Working Week, we stress how shortening the working week would have multiple beneficial effects on our societies.
A shorter working week is not just an intervention on work alone, it is also a feminist issue — helping to equalize the distribution of both paid and unpaid, usually feminized, labor in the household — as well as a green policy: by working less we can provide one pillar for the rapid decarbonization of our economy, and it could have profound effects on many other areas as well.