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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]

A shorter workweek may increase worker productivity: but that’s not why we need one

By Robert Raymond - Sharable, May 19, 2022

Studies show that a shorter workweek is healthier for people and the planet — but much of the conversation is focused on its impact on worker productivity or efficiency. This is a big mistake.

With the average worker in the United States clocking 47 hours a week, Americans are among the most overworked populations in the world — in fact, they work more hours per year than workers in almost any other industrialized country. 

Advocates of a shorter work week had a brief moment of excitement in California last month when state Democrats proposed a bill that would have required private-sector employers with more than 500 employees to pay hourly workers overtime after logging more than 32 hours a week

Unfortunately, the proposal didn’t make it very far through the legislative bill-making machine before it stalled out in committee. For the foreseeable future, the bill will remain in legislative purgatory. 

However, despite a disappointing outcome, the mere existence of the proposed bill in the state legislature is an important step toward shortening the Californian workweek — something that would be a boon to workers.

There are many benefits of working shorter hours. One that has been particularly compelling to employers is the fact that shorter hours have been linked to increased worker efficiency and productivity. For example, a 2021 study from Japan empirically determined that “when long working hours are reduced, individual productivity increases, and fewer mistakes are made at work.” 

Studies have also shown that working fewer hours actually increases worker happiness — leaving employees feeling more energized and giving them more free time to pursue their interests outside of work. 

I’d hazard a guess that the majority of us would drool over the prospect of fewer hours of wage labor and more hours in our day for rest, leisure, or — as the 19th-century slogan of the 8-hour day movement advocated — more hours to do with “what we will.

In fact, re-framing this discussion around the needs of labor rather than the needs of employers is critical for getting us on a path towards a healthier, more sustainable world where workers thrive.

Let Nature Play: A Possible Pathway of Total Liberation and Earth Restoration

By Dan Fischer - Green Theory & Praxis, April 2022

Many argue that we are running out of time, but perhaps the problem is time itself. Or rather, it is the alienated time that we spend working on the clock, obsessively looking at screens, letting consumption of commodities dominate our free time and even invade our dreams. And it is the perception we often have of the universe as a giant clock, an inert machine to be put to work. Too often, there is no sense that nature, ourselves included, has a right to relax, a right to be lazy, a right to play.

While Autonomist Marxists define capitalism as an “endless imposition of work” on human beings (van Meter, 2017), we could add that the system also imposes endless work on nonhuman animals and nature. Moving even beyond van Meter’s broad conception of the working class as inclusive of “students, housewives, slaves, peasants, the unemployed, welfare recipients and workers in the technical and service industries” in addition to the industrial proletariat, Jason Hribal (2012) describes exploited animals as working-class. He points to animals’ labor for humans’ food, clothing, transportation, entertainment, and medicine. Corroborating such a perspective, capitalists themselves label exploited ecosystems as “working landscapes” (Wuerthner, 2014), exploited farm animals as “labouring cattle” (Hribal, 2012), genetically modified crops as “living factories” (Fish, 2013), and extracted hydrocarbons as “energy slaves” (Fuller, 1940). As summarized by Indigenous Environmental Network director Tom Goldtooth (2015) the dominant worldview posits that “Mother Earth is a slave.” This endless work has been disastrous for the planet. Humans’ long hours of alienated labor contribute to deeply destructive economic growth (Hickel & Kallis, 2019; Knight et al., 2013). So does the exploited labor of animals, with livestock taking up some 76% of the world’s agricultural land (Poore & Nemecek, 2018). Working landscapes “suffer losses in biological diversity, soil health, and other ecological attributes” (Wuerthner, 2014). And even the cleanest “energy slaves,” wind and solar power, can require large amounts of resources and land in the context of a growing economy (War on Want & London Mining Network, 2019).

Why We Need to Be Able to Say No at Work

By Kristof Calvo and Marguerite van den Berg - Green European Journal, January 26, 2022

For most of us, life revolves around our jobs. As a result, efforts to improve people’s lives have focused on improving working conditions rather than challenging the centrality of work in our lives. Sociologist Marguerite van den Berg sets out to do just this in her recent book Werk is geen oplossing [Work is Not a Solution]. In this conversation with Belgian green politician Kristof Calvo, she explains how workers can recognise and assert their power.

Kristof Calvo: You write that everyone is tired and that no one has time, yourself included. Where did you find the time to write this book?

Marguerite van den Berg: I had a six-month fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, and that gave me time to work on the book. But the pandemic shook things up. Suddenly everything that makes life worth living stopped – except for the work. I had to deal with that craziness. Suddenly I felt even greater urgency to write the book.

Every author has their own method. How did you work? With fixed days for writing or by finishing a short piece each day?

I already had some parts on paper, but I wrote as much as I could in the mornings. Our kids were still at home when my fellowship started in February 2021, but things improved from May onwards.

In your book, you argue for a different view: a shift from “I am tired” to “We are exhausted”. Is this the essence of your story?

Yes. I wanted to show that everyone is struggling on a personal level. Few dare to mention to anyone other than those close to them that they are worried about how they will get through the next week. I felt compelled to acknowledge this collective feeling of exhaustion as well as its political dimension. I specifically did not want to reduce it to the vulnerability and precariousness of certain groups. Exhaustion does not only occur on the “margins”; it is happening across the full breadth of society.

Your message is clear. You don’t spare anyone in your analysis.

I address everyone directly by using “we”. Where I make a distinction, as when I speak of a “boss”, it’s a deliberate choice; I’m not referring to the person but rather the hierarchies at work that demand more and more from us.

Beyond a Just Transition

Beyond "Just Transition"

By Dr Eurig Scandrett - The Jimmy Reid Foundation, December 3, 2021

Introduction

It is no use simply saying to South Wales miners that all around them is an ecological disaster. They already know. They live in it. They have lived in it for generations. They carry it in their lungs… you cannot just say to people who have committed their lives and their communities to certain kinds of production that this has all got to be changed… Everything will have to be done by negotiation, by equitable negotiation, and it will have to be taken steadily along the way. Otherwise, you will find … that there is a middle-class environmental group protesting against the damage and there’s a trade-union group supporting the coming of the work. Now for socialists this is a terrible conflict to get into. Because if each group does not really listen to what the other is saying, there will be a sterile conflict which will postpone any real solutions at a time when it is already a matter for argument whether there is still time for the solutions. Raymond Williams (1982/1989)

The idea of ‘Just Transition’ (JT) has gained traction in recent years. With its roots in the union movement at the end of the twentieth century, it has developed into a concept with diverse and contested meanings. This engagement with JT has created spaces within the urgent policy areas of climate change mitigation to address potential job losses and the disproportionate impact up on the poorest communities, and more positively, to work for the generation of good quality, unionised jobs and greater social equality in a green economy. This is a fast-moving and often technical area of policy development. In Scotland, the Just Transition Commission (2021) reported in May 2021 after meeting over a period of two years, and relevant technical and policy reports are published with increasing frequency.

This paper is not a detailed contribution to these debates, on which others are more competent to comment, although it will inevitably touch on these. The paper aims to take a somewhat longer-term and more abstracted view of JT. It asks what do we mean by ‘Just’ and to what are we expecting to ‘Transition’ to? It argues that, in the discussions over the meanings of JT, the collective interests of workers, low-income communities and the environment are central, and require mechanisms to facilitate challenging dialogues between these interests.

There is an inevitable tendency, in developing positions on JT, to seek common ground between the two principal social movements that have driven JT debates: unions and environmental NGOs; or else between different unions or different industrial sectors. This process of seeking common ground can lead to a dilution of principle on all sides, a common denominator that all can live with, but with which none is entirely satisfied. While the process of negotiating common ground is a necessary and useful process for practical purposes, and a process at which the union movement is particularly adept, this paper argues that JT also provides the opportunity for a deeper dialogue in which all key stakeholders – the environment and working-class people who are either dependent on or excluded from the current unsustainable economy – can seek to incorporate the principles of the others. There are areas where the union movement and the environmental movement disagree. These areas of disagreement could be seen as potentially fertile grounds for deep dialogue in order to seek meaningful and lasting resolution.

This paper is, therefore, not intended to reflect the policy of any union or environmental group, but rather constitute a contribution to a debate within these movements and outwith them as well. It is, in places, designed to challenge. Indeed, it makes the case that the union and environmental movements can best learn from one another by being willing to be challenged by each other. All social movements reflect the interests of their participants, members, opinion formers and supporters and are contingent upon the social and political conditions in which they are acting. This is a strength, but also leads to ‘blind spots’ which are best addressed through collective self-reflection and challenges in solidarity from comrades in the struggle.

It is argued here that JT provides an opportunity to explore, for example, the tension well known in unions between representing the immediate interests of members and the long-term interests of the working-class; and in the environmental movement between the disproportionately educated, white, professional middle-class membership of the NGOs and the communities most directly affected by environmental devastation.

As has been recognised in some of the debates about JT, the idea can be located in a radical working-class tradition which, in Britain includes defence diversification, the East Kilbride Rolls Royce boycott of Chilean engines, the Lucas Aerospace Alternative Plan, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in, amongst others. JT can be more than a mechanism to address climate change, for it can also be a process which can be applied to transitions of many kinds that the labour movement and the left more generally have long advocated: the transition to a more democratic economy, more equal society and socially beneficial system of production, distribution and exchange. The paper, therefore, argues that the union movement, along with environmental and anti-poverty movements would benefit from going ‘beyond’ just transition.

Redefining Work to Save the Planet

By Jared Spears - The Progressive, August 30, 2021

All summer, fed-up employees across the United States have been refusing to work. From frustrated food service employees to exhausted factory line workers, they are banding together to push back against punishing schedules, precarious conditions and unresponsive management.

Despite these workers being lauded as “essential” at the onset of the pandemic, major news outlets have been more interested in billionaires’ private space-race than in covering, say, Western farm pickers’ petition to OSHA for extreme-heat protections or the Teamsters’ drive to unionize Amazon workers nationwide. 

Meanwhile, the urgency of climate change is only growing more intense. And, with so many workers across the country struggling against subsistence wages and conditions, the prospect of organizing a society-wide response to meet the emissions reductions outlined in the latest IPCC report still seems far off. We upended our lives during the pandemic, but our response to what we know is happening to the planet has remained business-as-usual. 

Government can and should assume a much larger role, coordinating industries and reshaping markets to address our urgent threats while guaranteeing better, more humane and socially beneficial work for all. This is precisely why the demand for a Green New Deal was never limited to energy transition alone: it was also tied to quality of life issues such as raising the minimum wage and providing universal health care access.

The term evokes a broader realignment between labor, government and the private sector — as occurred during the Great Depression — that would unleash the nation’s untapped potential. If our red-hot summer of wildfires, heatwaves and labor confrontations underscores anything, it’s to drive home the wisdom of the Green New Deal. 

Working less is both necessary and desirable from an environmental perspective.

By Kyle Lewis and Will Stronge - The Ecologist, June 8, 2021

With climate breakdown already at our doorstep, the pressing need to change course from capitalist models of growth has spawned new disciplines and approaches within the field of economics. 

One such approach is referred to as degrowth - a genre of research and activism that has been active for many decades, originally inspired by the political ecology of the French-Austrian  philosopher André Gorz. 

Conviviality

Those who advocate for degrowth define its approach as being- first and foremost- a critique of growth. Economic growth is unsustainable per se, because it is inseparable and cannot be ‘absolutely decoupled’ from greenhouse gas emissions and other negative environmental impacts.

In contrast to accounts that stress the need for ‘green growth’ or ‘socialist growth’, degrowth advocates demand the dethroning of growth as a goal in general and in its place want a political economy focused on using fewer natural resources in order to organise life and work. 

Rather than advancing an economic model destined for austerity, scarcity and recession - which are the socio-economic consequences usually associated with ‘flat’ or ‘non-growing economies’, degrowth and postgrowth advocates argue in favour of economic metrics and objectives that advance alternative modes of living, based on principles of sharing, conviviality, care and the common good. 

Breaking Things at Work: An Interview with Gavin Mueller

Gavin Mueller interviewed by Harry Holmes - Viewpoint Magazine, May 27, 2021

[Bright Green] Culture editor Harry Holmes interviews Gavin Mueller, author of the newly released Breaking Things at Work from Verso Books. Gavin Mueller is a lecturer in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the editorial collective of Viewpoint Magazine.

So first, for those who won’t have read it yet, can you tell us a bit about the book?

The book is essentially thinking about technology from the perspective of labour struggle. The left was in this accelerationist moment for a few years where there was an idea that technologies, particularly those tied to automation in the workplace, were leading to a ‘post-work’ or ‘post-capitalist’ future based on their own course of development. I was troubled by this discourse, which set me off on the research that led to this book.

From my perspective, and what I argue in the book, is that actually quite a lot of these technologies are not leading to a ‘post-work’ future. They are certainly not leading to a ‘post-capitalist’ future. Instead, they are actually weapons that make it difficult for workers to struggle, to establish autonomy at work, and to move the economy in a more egalitarian direction.

I wrote this book to show there is a different way of thinking about technology, one that I argue is more closely aligned to the political self-activity of workers. It also suggests that for those who care about more egalitarian futures we must start politicising technology and having a critical approach to it, rather than assuming it’s developing in a progressive way on its own.

In actually existing struggles both in our contemporary moment and in history, a critical perspective on technology has been there all along. This is why I start the story with the Luddites, who are famous, in quite a pejorative way, for opposing technology. I think there is quite a lot we can understand once we learn their history a little better and relate it to our present condition.

How much is this Luddite approach a strategic one about being able to be in solidarity with workers currently at the sharp end of technology’s impact, for example in an Amazon warehouse, or do you see it as part of a wider approach to technology in general? Is it an opposition to technology per se or a more qualified position based on current workplace struggles?

My political and intellectual influences are these ‘from below’ histories and thinking about struggle from that perspective, as well as being very alive to when there are tensions within the workers’ movement between rank-and-file struggles and the leadership, whether trade union, political party, or intellectual. It’s important to know this history because we have to learn from it.

So I think that’s where I always start, but politics is a sophisticated thing, I don’t think that all politics is oriented on the shop floor. We have to mediate to different levels, but I want to keep that kernel of struggle in our perspective.

We are seeing a lot of encouraging and exciting things. I don’t consider myself that old, but things that have never happened in my life before are happening – like lots of people identifying as socialist. We see these impressive electoral challenges, but they don’t quite ever get over the finish line. One reason for this is the base is still quite depoliticised and fragmented.

My idea of how you solve that problem is really to recognise the ways in which people are already engaged in struggle, particularly people in these incredibly exploited positions. There’s always resistance. But that resistance doesn’t always get amplified, it doesn’t always get connected or articulated with other forms of resistance. To me, that’s something that has been missing from these left-wing political challenges.

Maybe launching out a lot of policy proposals can be very exciting and interesting, but it doesn’t seem to quite do what we’ve hoped it would do. One reason for this is it still has this top-down perspective of ‘we are going to help you out.’ A lot of people don’t relate to that, they don’t believe in it, or they don’t hear those messages because I don’t think we’ve done the work of really building a base that will then get attached to policies and start actually informing policies. So that’s one reason I really orient the politics of the book in these struggles, because it is important to do at this moment.

My belief is we need to meet people where they are, which for most people is in the everyday struggles they have at work and in their wider life. Technology is a huge part of that, and often something many people already have already a critical approach to. They don’t like the way it is, they want things to be changed. They don’t want to hear a science fiction story about the robots allowing them to stay at home all day. I don’t think that will resonate. So that is a big motivation for the book. It’s an intellectual perspective I have, but I do think there is political value in it as well.

Luddism for the age of robotics

By Simon Pirani - The Ecologist, May 7, 2021

Climate breakdown is driven by industrial production, production by machines controlled by people. But can those very people demand a new, low carbon production?

Are the technologies developed by giant capitalist corporations – Walmart’s logistics or Elon Musk’s driverless cars – the foundation on which a post-capitalist society can be built? No way, argues Gavin Mueller in his latest book, Breaking Things At Work: the Luddites were right about why you hate your job (Verso, 2021).

He challenges “Marxist theoreticians” who see “the capitalist development of technology as the means for creating both abundance and leisure”, to be “realised once the masses finally [take] the reins of government and industry”.

Against these technocratic illusions, Mueller proposes “a decelerationist politics: of slowing down change, undermining technological progress, and limiting capital’s rapacity, while developing organisation and cultivating militancy”.

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