What’s Wrong with a 30-Hour Work Week?

With millions of jobs lost during the first part of 2009, who is calling for a shorter work week to spread the work around? Not the Republicans. Not the Democrats. But why is there nary a peep from unions?

In the U.S. the auto industry sets the pace for organized labor. The only discussion at the top levels of the UAW (United Auto Workers) is how quickly the gains won during the last 50 years can be given back. Does the UAW have no memory of the 1930s and 1940s when a shorter work week was at the center of organizing demands?

The gross domestic product (GDP) is plummeting at the same time that jobs are disappearing. Why should there be any connection between the two? If society produces 10 percent less, why don’t we all just work 10 percent less? Didn’t things work like that for hundreds of thousands of years of human existence? When people figured out easier ways to get what they needed, they spent less time doing it. It’s called “leisure.” Leisure is essential for a democratic society involved in self-government. Instead of working frenetically to produce “stuff” that we don’t have the time to enjoy, wouldn’t we be better off with less “stuff” and more time of our own? Research repeatedly shows that, once important needs are met, additional belongings bring no additional happiness, while work is strongly related to stress.

It’s more than stress to the human nervous system. Manufacturing too much stuff stresses every aspect of the environment. The voracious appetite of corporate growth destroys the habitats of the wolf and bear in North America; the last refuges of chimpanzees in Africa and orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra are swiftly disappearing; mangrove forests give way to beach resorts as long line fishing kills 100 sea animals for every fish eaten by a human.

Vastly more creatures fall prey to the 80,000-100,000 chemicals spewed into the air, water, and land. Countless molecules of chlorine and fluorine go into pesticides and plastics that destroy immune and reproductive systems. Elemental structures of lead, mercury, and, of course, radioactive particles are death to living systems.

Nevertheless, corporate media propagandizes non-stop that we must pray for a quick return to the normal rate of planetary extermination following the economic downturn. So it’s time to ask why another set of voices is not demanding a shorter work week. Why do the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Federation, and a host of other Washington lobby groups fail to point out that an economic slowdown with a fair distribution of jobs would be the treatment of choice for a sick environment?

Centuries Of Struggle For The Working Day

Some of the most insightful writing on hours of labor is in Karl Marx’s Capital. While most of it reflects the analytical style of 19th century economic writing, Chapter X on “The Working-Day” reveals Marx’s outrage at what long hours do to workers’ health. The problem started as infant capitalism found the hours of labor under feudalism to be insufficient to satisfy its urges for expansion. In response to a shortage of labor due to the plague, England’s 1349 “Statute of Laborers” sought to ensure that the working day was sufficiently long. An Elizabethan statute of 1562 lengthened the working day by reducing the time for meals. Emphasizing that it took capitalism centuries to lengthen the working day to 12 hours, Marx noted that one of the milestones was the elimination of church holidays by Protestantism.

By the 19th century, some people had work weeks of 15 hours per day for 6 days per week plus 8-10 hours on Sunday. At the same time that many were organizing to reduce their hours to 12 per day, the Chartist movement made the ten-hour day “their political, election cry.” The high point of U.S. labor organizing during the 19th century was on May 1, 1886 when 300,000 workers went on strike for the 8-hour day. The brutal repression in Chicago with the Haymarket arrests and executions sparked the international celebration of May Day.

In his classic description of the fervor for an eight-hour day that began in 1884 and increased in pitch through 1886, Strike!, Jeremy Brecher made observations that are still relevant:

  • The leadership of the dominant labor organization of the day, the Knights of Labor, attempted to put brakes on the eight-hour movement. It was often the grassroots that pushed forward, dragging the leaders behind them in city after city.
  • The 1886 strike wave, far more than previous labor actions, “became above all strikes for power.” The 1886 demands were for control over work hours, hiring and firing, and the organization of work.
  • The struggle for the eight-hour day did not wait until the ten-hour day had been won. Unbelievably long hours were still common. Successful strikes meant that, in many industries, workers “of all kinds have reduced their hours of labor from 15 to 12 and 10.” Workers who only a few years earlier had 12 to 15 hour per day jobs were now demanding the 8-hour day. Marx noted that the Chartist movement for the 10-hour day was popular among those with a work week of up to 100 hours.

Does Anyone Work For Less Than 40 Hours?

While interviewing Spanish longshore workers in 1989, I talked to Juan Madrid in Barcelona. “Do American workers really get off less than a month?” he asked me incredulously. “Two weeks is the most common; some only get one week and many get no paid vacation at all,” I let him know. Factoring in longer vacations, he had an average work week considerably shorter than the typical U.S. worker. This is the rule, and not the exception, in Europe.

Reducing the work week below 40 hours has preoccupied many labor organizations. In the 1930s, the American Federation of Labor lobbied for a six-hour day. In 1990, BMW’s plant in Regensburg adopted a 36-hour week and German Volkswagen employees accepted a 10 percent pay cut to achieve a 28.8-hour work week. A French subsidiary of the Digital Corporation likewise had 530 employees who opted for a 4-day week with a 7 percent pay cut so that 90 jobs could be saved.

Some victories for shorter work weeks may only be temporary. Tim Kaminski told me that he loved the extra free time he gained from winning a seven-hour day (with no loss in pay) at the St. Louis Chrysler minivan plant in 1992. But the contract stipulated that it would last only until another plant reopened, which happened two years later.

Occasionally, even politicians have been known to champion the cause of fewer hours. Before joining the Supreme Court, as a U.S. Senator Hugo Black introduced legislation for a 30-hour work week in 1933. More recently, the French Senate looked into a 33-hour week.

One of the least known flirtations with the 30-hour work week was by the cereal giant W.K. Kellogg Company. In 1930, the company announced that most of its 1,500 employees would go from an 8-hour to a 6-hour work day, which would provide 300 new jobs in Battle Creek. Though the shorter work week involved a pay cut, the overwhelming majority of workers preferred having increased leisure time to spend with their families and community. New managers who began running Kellogg had no enthusiasm for the shorter work day. They polled workers in 1946 and found that 77 percent of men and 87 percent of women would choose a 30-hour week even if it meant lower wages. Disappointed, management began examining which work groups liked money more than leisure and began offering the 40-hour week on a department-by-department basis.

How long did it take them to get rid of the 30-hour week? Almost 40 years. The desire to have more time to themselves was so strong that it was not until 1985 that Kellogg was able to eliminate the 30-hour work week in the last department.

Despite all of this, there is something problematic with advocating a 30-hour work week at the beginning of the 21st century: a 30 hour week is not short enough. There is mushrooming unemployment amid mountains of useless products. An hour of labor now produces more goods than has ever been the case in the history of humanity. All this means that there is no reason for anyone to work more than 20 hours per week.

Every year, clever folks figure out how to churn out more stuff with fewer hours of labor. Jeffrey Kaplan observed that, “By 1991, the amount for goods and services produced for each hour of labor was double what it had been in 1948.” This was a doubling of labor productivity in only 43 years. Jon Bekken calculates a more rapid rate: “Automation and other innovations result in our productivity (output per work hour) doubling every 25 years or so.” In other words, the amount that people produce during an hour of labor doubles every 33 years (give or take 10 years). We have the ability to produce twice as much during the work day or cut the work day in half and produce the same amount.

Arthur Dahlberg, a consultant to both the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, wrote that capitalism was already capable of satisfying basic human needs with a four-hour work day. He maintained that such a drastic cut in working hours “was necessary to prevent society from becoming disastrously materialistic.”

The issue was revisited in 1991 by Harvard economist Juliet Schor, who concluded that it would be possible to have a 4-hour work day with no decline in the standard of living. Similarly, J.W. Smith argued that “over 50 percent of our industrial capacity has nothing to do with producing for consumer needs.” Years before issues of climate change and peak oil grabbed the public, Smith forecast: “We’re facing an ecological nightmare as we push to the brink the earth’s ability to support us. We could eliminate much industrial pollution and conserve our precious, dwindling resources by eliminating the 50 percent of industry that is producing nothing useful for society.”

By including population growth and people seeking to live the lifestyle of the English-speaking rich, Ted Trainer ciphers that, “By 2070 given 3 percent economic growth, total world economic output every year would then be 60 times as great as it is now.”

This would be a 6,000 percent increase in stuff in 63 years—not exactly healthy for forests, oceans, wildlife and humans. If we want our children to be able to live on this planet, the single most important environmental legislation may be restricting people from working more than 20 hours per week.

What’s Stopping A Shorter Work Week?

One factor which is not standing in the way of fewer work hours is “human nature.” Marshall Sahlins estimated that hunter and gatherer societies probably spent 15-20 hours per week obtaining the necessities to survive. Each of us can look inside of ourselves to see the real obstacles to cutting the work week in half: fear that we will lose medical care, pensions, and related survival necessities.

Virtually every working family in American is one medical catastrophe away from bankruptcy. Countless Americans would gleefully shift to a 20-hour work week if it would not cause them to lose their health insurance. Pensions pose a similar roadblock. As they approach retirement, millions of Americans become acutely aware that pensions are based on factors like the average salary of the last three years. Working part time would cut pension payments during uncertain years.

It is not a well kept secret that employers often give workers less than 40 hours in order to deny them benefits. A similar effect occurs from forced overtime. Even though there may be a higher rate of pay for overtime, a company may save money if it does not pay for the health care and pensions that putting more people on the payroll would require.

Every environmentalist who wants to stop coal companies from blowing the top off of sacred mountains should be on those mountains screaming that private health insurance and pension plans must be replaced by single payer health care and a social security system with at least a four-fold expansion of payments. In case the environmental significance is not clear: halting the cancerous growth of useless fall-apart junk production requires a drastic shortening of the work week. Cutting the work week can only happen if people are not terrified that fewer hours means they will lose health insurance and pension plans.

These are called “social wages.” Social wages also include mass transportation, clean water, breathable air, uncontaminated land, and something which is becoming increasingly rare: the right to quality free public education which is coordinated by representatives directly elected by citizens. These social wages are as important environmentally as medical care and pensions. The right to a home with electricity and heat is part of the same pattern. People who are not fearful of being thrown out of their home or losing their utilities have much less incentive to work long hours.

When U.S. workers struck for the eight-hour day in 1886, they were going beyond pay issues and demanding that labor have a role in controlling the process of production. Today, we need a progressive alliance to challenge not only how many hours we work, but the quality, durability, and even the necessity of the goods we produce. Drastically cutting the hours we work will help save the Earth’s ecology only if it is part of an overarching goal to improve the quality of our lives while reducing the grand mass of manufactured objects.


Don Fitz has been surviving on less than 20 hours work per week since he was forced to retire in 2006. He is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is published for members of The Greens/Green Party USA.