Shawn Fain Is Right: The Workweek Should Be Shorter
As negotiations kicked off between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Stellantis — the parent company of Chrysler and Jeep and one of the Big Three automakers, along with Ford and General Motors, who collectively employ around 150,000 UAW members — one person was conspicuously absent from the proceedings.
Mark Stewart, Stelllantis’s chief operating officer, was not at the bargaining table in Detroit, Michigan. Instead, he was apparently in Acapulco, Mexico, at a second home. According to the UAW, Stern did not attend negotiations over Zoom either.
Yet Stewart found time to pen a letter urging a deal based in “economic realism” — a response to workers’ ambitious demands for an end to tiered contracts, the right to strike over plant closures, and 40 percent raises over the life of the four-year contract, which would claw back concessions made during the Great Recession. Stewart characterized UAW president Shawn Fain’s comments on the negotiations, such as a video in which the union president throws a paper containing Stellantis’s proposals in a garbage can, as “theatrics.”
Asked by the Detroit Free Press to comment on Stewart’s alleged absence from negotiations, Stellantis spokeswoman Jodi Tinson declined to do so.
But if one of Stellantis’s top executives was prioritizing rest and relaxation over work, perhaps his employees deserve the same.
Fain has frequently emphasized shorter work weeks in speeches given in the months since his nail-biter election win over incumbent Ray Curry in March of this year. He says his aim is a forty-hour workweek Monday through Friday, but with every worker receiving a paid day off one day a week — effectively, a thirty-two-hour workweek. Overtime provisions would apply but would kick in sooner, at the thirty-two-hour mark.
The new UAW leader is eloquent on the subject of free time, and one gets the sense that he really means it.
“We have to work longer and harder just to maintain the same standard of living that we had before,” said Fain in an address to members about bargaining with Stellantis, broadcast on Facebook Live. Members’ wages have been stagnant for years: some autoworkers’ current starting pay is $18.04, lower than the rate workers received in 2007, which amounted to $19.60 when adjusted for inflation.
“That means more time at work, and less time living life. That means missing Little League games and family reunions. It means less time outdoors, less time traveling, less time pursuing our passions and our hobbies,” Fain added.
As the new UAW president tells it, he was drawn to the idea of shorter workweeks when perusing old issues of the union’s Solidarity magazine at the Black Lake UAW conference and education center in Michigan. In back issues from the 1930s and 1940s, UAW members advocated thirty-five- and even thirty-two-hour weeks. The ambition stands in marked contrast to more recent UAW leaders’ acquiescence to scheduling that can force some members to work seven days a week, twelve hours a day.
Fain is right to emphasize the long lineage of the demand. Former UAW president Walter Reuther took up the subject in the 1950s, at a time when technological progress and the union’s industrial strength meant workers had a real shot of winning it.
In his livestreamed address to members, Fain also traced his commitment to winning a better work-life balance to a book he’d read in a church group. One Month to Live’s authors ministered to people who were in their final days of life, and their findings were revelatory for the union leader.
“They found that very few people, when they looked back, wished that they had spent time at work,” said Fain. “Instead, most people had a lot of regrets about all the things they wanted to do but never did or never got to do or never had the time to do.”
In his address to members, Fain went on to describe a person’s time as “the greatest resource in this world,” noting that while we each have a finite amount of time, we spend so much of it at work, often doing something we wouldn’t choose to do, for the sake of someone else’s profit.
“That’s what wages are about: no matter what type of work somebody does, you’re being paid for your time,” Fain continued. “That should be the focus of everything going forward.”
Not everyone is thrilled with Fain’s focus on reducing work hours. Speaking to the Washington Post, Fain said, “The talking heads have zeroed in on the 32-hour workweek [demand], and they’re trying to call me a communist.” In response to such criticisms, Fain pointed to a recent survey by Deloitte, which found that 66 percent of financial-service workers would quit their jobs if they were asked to come to the office five days a week, with workers citing improved relationships with their loved ones as a reason for wanting to work remotely.
“How the hell is it that when you’re talking about financial workers or white-collar workers, this is acceptable?” said Fain at a recent strike preparation conference. Noting that many corporate leaders are still working remotely, he added, “It’s okay for them but goddammit, when we ask for the same thing, for some fair treatment and some fucking work-life balance, what do they say to us? They say, ‘You don’t deserve it.’”
Fain isn’t the only person advocating for the idea. Spurred by a pandemic that led workers to reevaluate their priorities, the push for a shorter workweek has gained traction. In Iceland, an experiment that shortened work weeks to thirty-five or thirty-six hours resulted in reduced worker stress and increased time for non-work-related activities, all while “productivity and service provision remained the same or improved across the majority of trial workplaces,” according to a report on the experiment. Since then, eight in ten Icelandic workers have shifted to shorter work schedules. Additional experiments in the UK, Japan, New Zealand have likewise produced positive results.
In the United States, Representative Mark Takeno (D-CA) introduced legislation in Congress in 2021 that would reduce the standard workweek to thirty-two hours for nonexempt employees by amending the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. The FLSA codifies the work week at forty hours and was itself the product of a push by the US working class. For those workers whose hours may be harder to reduce (perhaps autoworkers among them), the legislation would mean a significant increase in overtime pay.
Rep. Takeno’s bill was endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus but has little of the support it would need for implementation in a country whose people, despite a slight recent decrease in work hours, put in more work time than almost any other in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. For instance, in 2021, we worked 294 more hours than British workers, and 442 more hours than German workers.
That is where unions come in. Historically, it was organized workers who forced new standards on their employers; once those changes became the norm, they became easier to codify in law. The first May Day protest, at which the Haymarket radicals were martyred, was a push to win the eight-hour day, with tens of thousands of marchers chanting, “Eight-hour day with no cut in pay.” Only with the FLSA, more than fifty years later, did it become the law of the land.
For society-wide progress, the implementation of a shorter workweek could not stop with UAW. member. It would need to be tied to the problem of underwork, which is the more pressing problem for many in the United States who want full-time jobs but can only find part-time employment.
Unifying the overworked and the underemployed by demanding greater say over scheduling — and equalizing the distribution of work by paying full-time employees overtime for hours thirty-two to forty, giving them less incentive to work more than forty hours a week — would be central to the project. Such an agenda would aim to claw back the decades-long trend of employers demanding greater flexibility from workers, or what is sometimes called “just-in-time employment,” both in the form of forced overtime for some and temporary, part-time work for others.
“If we don’t lead this fight, if we don’t lead these conversations, no one is going to do it,” Fain told members at the strike preparation conference. “We have to change the narrative. That’s what our responsibility is as a union, and that’s what our leadership’s responsibility is and that’s what we’ve set out to do.”
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Alex N. Press is a staff writer at Jacobin who covers labor organizing.
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