Cut the working week

Submitted by AWL on 1 March, 2021 - 2:24 Author: Ruth Cashman
Protest against longer hours

The shorter working week should be a central demand for the ’new normal’ in post-pandemic recovery. So it’s fortuitous timing for the publication of The Case for a Four Day Week , written by Anna Coote, Aidan Harper and Alfie Stirling. It argues that reduced working time is good for human well-being, for the natural environment and for building a prosperous economy and aims to provide a roadmap for a transition from today’s standard five day/35-hour work week towards four days or 30-hours as the new norm.

The eight-hour day

Throughout human history, economic affairs have dominated human life. For generations, the low level of technology and industry meant that all our energies had to be devoted to the struggle to get the bare essentials. Under capitalism, however, we have made sufficient advances to produce all that we need. But instead of using this capacity to meet those needs, the capitalist system is predicated on a drive for more profit; on making the worker work longer and harder, for less.

Since the early days of the labour movement there has been a struggle over working hours, the amount of time each day or week during which workers are compelled to sell our labour power to a boss in order to live:

"In nineteenth century Britain, a regular working day ranged from 10 to 16 hours, typically for six days a week... The eight-hour movement gathered strength, and workers came out in their thousands to demand ‘Eight Hours Work – Eight Hours Rest – Eight Hours For What We Will.’

"Karl Marx maintained that the shortening of the working day was a ‘basic prerequisite’ of what he described as ‘the true realm of freedom’ and this became a central issue for socialist and labour movements in industrialised countries across the world.”

Workers fought their bosses’ attempts to lengthen the working week and eventually won victories to increase their leisure time.

Gas workers in East London became the first workers in Britain to win the 8-hour week. In 1889, thousands of men were working long, hard days at the Beckton Gas Works in East London. Stokers would shovel coal for up to 13 hours a day and take home just 5d (2.5p) per hour. Birmingham-born Will Thorne had been working since he was six. Now in his thirties and working at Beckton, Thorne decided to form a union – The National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers. On Sunday 31 March 1889, a large crowd gathered at the Beckton Works to hear him make the case for the new union:

"Fellow wage slaves.... I know that many of you have been working eighteen hours under very hard and difficult conditions, that many of you must be dead tired; often I have done the eighteen-hour shift… Let me tell you that you will never get any alteration in Sunday work, no alteration in any of your conditions or wages, unless you join together and form a strong trade union. Then you will be able to have a voice and say how long you will work, and how much you will do for a day’s work.

"By your labour power you create things for the community, you create wealth and dividends, but you have no say, no voice, in any of these matters. All this can be altered if you will join together and form a powerful union, not only for gas workers, but one that will embrace all kinds of general labourers. It is easy to break one stick, but when fifty sticks are together in one bundle it is a much more difficult job.”

This was the birth of the union. Within weeks, it had 3000 members. They went on strike to force the bosses to reduce the working hours. Their strike was a success and helped establish the principle of shorter working days.

Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries labour movement action pushed down work hours bit-by-bit. Now, with the retreat of militant trade unionism this trend has stalled or reversed, in the UK and USA at least, and the working week is creeping back up.

Tackling gender inequality

Sharing out work, by creating more jobs on fewer hours, would help those working long hours at the same time as creating jobs for those without work. It is harder to find well-paid part-time work and shortening the standard working week could and should be used to level up conditions between full and part-time workers.

A shorter working week would also make it easier for women and men to share unpaid caring and domestic work more equally. At the moment the financial incentive for two parent families is a twin-track strategy: have one parent concentrating on career development and working long hours in a better-paid role, while the other parent (typically the mother) works shorter hours in a lower-paid supplementary role, so that they can focus on childcare. Even where both parents work, “breadwinner” and “homemaker” roles still exist.

The authors of A Four Day Week are clear the shorter working week ought not just give women a better work/life balance, but men too, “as an essential step towards changing today’s gendered pattern of time use.” Men will not automatically use additional free time to take on more domestic responsibilities, but it is nonetheless necessary. The authors are right that a shorter working week is not just a foundational demand for the labour movement but a hugely relevant socialist feminist demand for gender equality.

Saving the environment

The book describes a range of social, economic and environmental benefits from a shorter working week. When people have more disposable time, they are also less likely to buy energy-intensive ‘convenience’ goods such as processed ready meals, or to opt for faster and less sustainable modes of transport, such as a car instead of a bike, or a plane instead of a train.

With unemployment rising, a four-day week offers a way of sharing out the number of jobs among more people, cutting the numbers of unemployed and releasing others from long working hours. With rates of pay protected, it can improve wellbeing by reducing stress and anxiety, and making it easier to combine employment with domestic responsibilities.

The book also discusses advantages of cutting the working week without pay protection. In this model consumption (and ecological damage) is reduced by economy wide wage restraint:

"Although trade unions are understandably committed to reducing the hours without pro rata loss of pay, Schor envisages a gradual shift towards workers taking reduced hours in return for a smaller annual increment. The gradual and cumulative effect will be to slow the rate at which incomes increase and consequently the amount that is consumed.”

Socialism and the shorter working week

As a wide-ranging survey of all the arguments for and all the routes to the four day week, the book is effective. But we are not neutral in the whys and hows of shrinking the working week.

We are not interested in improving the rate of exploitation of workers. Some of the arguments in the book are not pitched particularly radically. They put forward evidence, for instance, to show that when people work fewer hours, the quality of their work improves, which can boost economic productivity. In other words, the shorter working week can be good for business!

Shortening working hours claws back some time from our bosses, why would we want to work harder in the hours we are at work? We don’t want to do the same amount of work in less time, we want work spread out more rationally between more workers.

Our socialist project is aimed at ending the dominance of economic concerns over human life. The demand to reduce working hours knits together the living struggles of the workers but also points the way to the revolutionary transformation of society we want to see.

A decent and rational society would cut the working week to a level which enables everybody to have free time and control over their activity, not to have their lives dominated by what an employer or the state tells them to do. We should share that work out equally, so that we don’t have some people overworked, some people in idleness and rich, and other people in idleness and poor as under capitalism.

There are many arguments for shorter working weeks. Our roadmap for transition should build the ability and confidence of the working class to transform society.

• Anna Coote, Aidan Harper & Alfie Stirling, The Case for a Four Day Week (Polity Press, 2020)

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