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“We Want Everything”: A Four-Day Work Week

By Samantha O’Brien - Rupture, June 9, 2022

“It’s not fair, living this shitty life, the workers said in meetings, in groups at the gates. All the stuff, all the wealth that we make is ours. Enough. We can’t stand it any more, we can’t just be stuff too, goods to be sold. Vogliamo tutto - We want everything”

- Nanni Balestrin

Labour Power

The four-day work week has captivated media headlines internationally, with different countries piloting programmes in the Global North. Seventeen companies have signed up to commit to a pilot programme in Ireland. Thirty companies in the UK are taking part in a new pilot. Workers will maintain one-hundred per cent productivity for eighty per cent of their time.[1] Belgium has given workers the right to request a four-day work week with no loss of pay, effectively condensing their five day work week into four days. This has rightfully attracted criticism, as working time has not reduced, but workers get to maximise their stress levels by working nine and a half hours per day.[2] The central theme of many global campaigns is that the implementation will look different in varying sectors, rosters and working arrangements. The campaign’s main aim is for a shorter working week with no loss of pay and challenging the dominant narrative that long hours equate with greater productivity.[3]

The key demand of socialists has long been a shorter working week with no loss of pay. Karl Marx in Capital describes how the hours that make up the working day mean different things to employees and employers. Workers put in their time to afford the basic necessities in life. Employers buy labour-power, and the value is determined by working time. Any labour-power beyond what is required to produce the necessities of life is surplus-value that employers get for free. It is not necessary for us to work long hours to produce what is needed, but instead employers maximise their profits by taking our surplus value. Marx notes that “the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., working-class.”[4]

There are many examples of struggles over shorter working hours throughout history. The eight-hour working day in the Global North was not granted because of benevolent employers or lobbying politicians, but fought for and won through struggle. In 1856, Australian Stonemasons who were working harsh ten hours days walked off their job and eventually won an eight-hour day.[5] The same story was echoed in struggles internationally, with workers taking a collective stand for their pay and conditions. Eleanor Marx, who was a founder of the GMB Union in 1889, fought and won an eight hour workday for gas workers. On May Day in 1890, she also played a crucial role in organising the Hyde Park protest in London. This protest gathered hundreds of thousands of people with the key demand of an eight-hour workday.[6]

The New Normal

Recently, the Covid-19 Pandemic has led to a transition to new working arrangements. It has shown how not all work requires you to be in an office or spend long hours commuting. It has freed up time and, with that, a reinvigorated sense of what a new normal should be. There is growing evidence of the benefits of working less. One notable example is Iceland which held two large-scale trials for a shorter working week with no loss of pay at the behest of campaigns by Trade Unions and civil society organisations. Over 2,500 workers participated in these trials from 2015 to 2019. Workers moved from a 40 hour week to a 35 or 36 hour week without reduced pay. The results of the trials were successful; they improved employee well being and work output remained the same.

Workers achieved this by rethinking working arrangements such as shorter meetings, cutting out unnecessary tasks, and different shift arrangements. The trials paved the way for trade unions to negotiate shorter working hours. In 2021, eighty-six per cent of Iceland workers had contracts that had shorter working hours or gave the right to request them.[7]

Throughout history, reduced working time has long been an aspiration of workers who have fought and won better conditions and shorter hours. The progress that has been achieved is not replicated around the world. The Global South bears the brunt of the consumption machine of the North, with hyper exploitative work practices and destructive environmental consequences. It is clear that work dominates people’s lives and that the two day weekend that is normalised today in the Global North is not an innate way that society should organise.[8] This is the narrative that needs deconstructing in order to win not only a shorter working week, but to organise around human needs and environmental sustainability, not for the endless pursuit of profit for capitalists.

Technology and working less

The dominant dogma perpetuated from an early age is that earning a living by working hard is natural and beneficial to employee well-being. Worklessness means failure, and if you find yourself unemployed, you are stigmatised and classed as cheating others. The capitalist system is not organised to give the same opportunities to everyone. The amount of work you put in does not guarantee financial security or happiness. One study showed that 70 per cent of workers in Ireland experience some form of stress, and only 30 per cent believe they have a good work-life balance.[9]

A striking statistic amid a housing crisis in Ireland is that ten of the biggest landlords in Ireland own 17,000 properties. People are struggling to get by, unable to afford rents or housing and the government's solution is more investors buying up properties, locking ordinary people out of the market.[10] This is emblematic of a wider problem that is inherent within capitalism. Those who own property, assets, and capital own a greater concentration of the wealth and are reaping the rewards while contributing no labour share. Will Stronge and Kyle Lewis note that “Research has shown that over time and across the globe, a higher capital share is linked with higher inequality in terms of the distribution of personal incomes.”[11] Those with wealth and power perpetuate inequalities at the expense of those on lower incomes. They would also have us believe that longer hours are crucial for society and people’s economic and personal well-being.

In a new technological epoch, surely we have the means to work less and meet society’s needs. John Maynard Keynes, an economist in the 1930s, predicted that with technological innovations, we would require fewer human hours to produce what was required, thereby reducing the workweek to 15 hours. Technology today does have the capacity to meet human needs, to free humanity to enjoy other pursuits. However, this is not how capitalism works. Pointless jobs are created that have no meaning or social value to maintain power and ensure we consume more for profit at the expense of the Global South. A productive population is better for capitalism than a happy population. David Graeber eloquently articulated this argument in his viral article and subsequent book Bullshit Jobs.[12]

Time is Everything

The collective experience of people is not living a life of luxury, with endless travel or time to meaningfully pursue interests. It is trying to get by in our work to meet the basic needs and treat ourselves when we can. Life is simply exhausting, and time means everything. What do most people do with their free time? We have caring responsibilities and housework, as well as fulfilling essential functions such as cooking for ourselves and our families. A workplace extends beyond the office and shop floors to our households. Women are doubly burdened with more precarious working conditions and provide the majority of the unpaid care in the home.

A report showed that 45 per cent of women and 29 per cent of men in Ireland provide care for others each day. Sixteen hours are spent on care work, and 14 and a half hours are spent on housework per week. During the pandemic, 85 per cent of women in Ireland said their caring responsibilities increased, and 55 per cent said they had less time for their mental health. Over 70 per cent of part-time workers are women.[12] A shorter working week would no doubt positively impact the quality of life for workers, allowing them to spend more time with loved ones and pursue their interests. It would have an impact on the equalisation of workloads at home, which in turn would impact gender equality regarding caring responsibilities and participation in the labour market. In tandem with the call for reduced hours is the demand for the State to provide quality care services to the public (childcare and adult care). This promotes green jobs and ensures that people feel the benefit of reduced hours rather than adding to unpaid hours at home.

The movement we need

The fight for a shorter working week is tied with the environmental movement and will need to be fought on many fronts, including through social movements and trade unions. A four day work week will mean a reduced commute, reducing carbon emissions. Over 60 per cent of workers in Ireland drive to work.[13] New working arrangements and reduced hours are a key demand to win workers. Rupture has previously outlined theThe case for a socialist Green New Deal’, outlining a vision of what that would look like including a shorter working week with no loss of pay.[14]

Trade unions have played a valuable role in gaining an eight hour day in the 21st Century; however, trade union membership has been declining for decades, with just under a quarter of employees in Ireland being union members.[15] There are many obstacles to reinvigorating, transforming, and democratising trade unions. These include building a strong left grassroots base, strategic organising, increasing participation, and democratising and strengthening our unions.[16] Achieving a shorter working week is no easy feat and will look different in different workplaces. The environmental movement collectively standing with the workers' movement would be a powerful force towards achieving a shorter working week and challenging the wealth and economic power in society.

The key to winning a shorter working week is learning lessons from past struggles and recognising the structural inequalities of capitalism so we can come up with solutions. A starting point is looking at the evidence, recognising unpaid work in the home as work alongside the shorter working week, arguing for a community-run childcare service and adult care service that the State will publicly finance. Working-class people will prosper when all the value we create is used for the benefit of society, and the extraction of surplus-value by the owners of capital is ended. Fundamentally, we need to organise work and society around human needs over capitalist greed. The left has used the slogan “We want to live, not just exist” on election posters. It echoes the call of past labour struggles. Life should not just be about struggling to meet basic needs but living - having financial security and enjoying life, organising our own time, building our interests, and sometimes doing nothing at all. A shorter working week helps us realise that freedom and gives people the space to live with meaning and thrive. We want to live with dignity. We want everything.


1. Four Day Work Week Press Release ‘17 Companies Signed up to Four Day Week Pilot Programme to Date’. Available at:

2. The Independent ‘Belgium gives workers the right to request a four-day week (2022)’ Available at:

3. Four Day Work Week ‘Better for Everyone’. Available at:

4. Marx, K. ‘Economic Manuscripts: Capital Vol. I - Chapter Ten’ Available at: 

5. Stronge, W. Lewis, K. (2021) ‘Overtime-Why We Need A Shorter Working Week’ (Verso).

6. Harper, A. (2019) ‘The fight for shorter working hours, New Economics Foundation’. Available at: 

7. Guðmundur D. Haraldsson Jack Kellam, (2021)‘Going public: Iceland’s journey to a shorter working week’ Available at: 

8. Stronge, W. Lewis, K. (2021), ‘Overtime-Why We Need A Shorter Working Week’ (Verso).

9. Quinlan, Á. (2020) ‘Study finds 70% of employees experiencing stress at work, The Irish Times’. Available at:

10. Independent (2022) ‘Revealed: Ten biggest landlords now own 17,000 homes’ Available at:

11. Stronge, W. Lewis, K. (2021), [Pg 9] ‘Overtime-Why We Need A Shorter Working Week’ (Verso).

12. IHREC (2019) ‘New Study Shows Significant Weight of Care and Unpaid Work Responsibilities’ Available at:

13. CSO - Central Statistics Office (2016) ‘Means of Travel to Work ‘Available at: 

14. O’Dwyer, D. (2020) ‘The case for a socialist Green New Deal”. Available at: 

15. ETUI ‘Trade Unions’, Available at:

16. O’ Brien, S. (202) Leaving the Shire - The Role of Trade Unions in a Post-Covid Society (no date) RISE. Available at:

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