The Most Important Environmental Demand: Less Work

        [Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]

A shorter work week should enter into every discussion to protect the environment.  Advocating fewer hours of work is core to both (a) everyday organizing to stop environmental abuse, and (b) imagining an ecological society.  These are several reasons why:

1. A shorter work week means we could create less stuff.  This strikes at the heart of the corporate world  view that humans exist to manufacture, consume and worship objects. Why should jobs disappear just because the gross domestic product (GDP) is plummeting?  If society produces 10% less, why don’t we all just work 10% less?

2. The voracious appetite of corporate growth destroys homes of the wolf and bear in North America.  Swiftly disappearing are the last refuges of chimpanzees in Africa and orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra.  Mangrove forests give way to beach resorts as long line fishing kills 100 sea animals for every fish eaten by a human.  As a weapon in the battle against economic growth, a shorter work week would slow down human encroachment on species habitat and allow for the expansion of wild and unlogged areas.

3. Countless creatures fall prey to the 80–100,000 chemicals spewed into the air, water and land. 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 Thanatos to living systems. Fewer work hours could help efforts to remove entire categories of toxins from production as we say “Let’s shrink the economy by eliminating the most damaging industrial processes.”

4. The most frequent building block of toxins is oil.  With more than 40 hours of labor contained in each gallon, oil is the closest thing to free energy that humanity has ever discovered. [1]  A substance that should be used sparingly so that many future generations could use if for medical and other essential products, oil is being squandered at an exponential rate by a corporate culture determined that its descendants will despise it.  Since “America’s energy consumption has grown in direct relation to its economic growth,” reducing the work week should slow down the exhaustion of fossil fuels. [2]

5. As climate change changes from “if/when” to “How rapidly is it increasing?” corporations befuddle our senses with a dazzling array of green gadgets, each of which pumps more greenhouse gases [GHGs] into the atmosphere during its manufacture and distribution. Lowering production is the single most important factor in lowering GHGs.

6. Producing less stuff could strengthen alliances between environmentalists in the overdeveloped world and victims of imperialism whose countries are poisoned by the toxic extraction of natural resources and whose political systems are twisted to ensure the continuation of puppet governments.

7. Similarly, a shorter work week could strengthen alliances with indigenous peoples, whose cultures are severely threatened by extraction industries (including logging) and luxury tourist traps.

8. An economic slowdown with a fair distribution of jobs would be the treatment of choice for a sick environment.  Though it may come as a surprise to US labor leaders, a shorter work week has long been on the agenda of working people, who would benefit immediately by any reduction in hours.

9. 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. [3]  Yet work is strongly related to stress. [4]  Improved leisure time both means more time to relax and more time to spend in self-government, an essential prerequisite for a society built on democracy in everyday life.

Please notice a couple of things about the above list.  The first and last items focus on reconnecting humanity with humanity.  As critically important as physical changes are for our survival, we must never forget that those changes embody social relationships created by capitalism.  If we do not challenge relationships of domination, efforts to preserve species, protect native lands, halt toxins and improve working conditions will be short-lived at best.

Second, throughout the listed reasons for reducing working hours is an assumption that it will accompany a roughly equivalent reduction in the total mass of production. The global ecological crisis means that efforts to increase or even maintain current levels of production (such as “stimulus” packages or “30 for 40!”) are destructive towards building alliances between labor, environment, and oppressed peoples and are even more destructive towards building a new world.

Corporate media propagandizes non-stop that we must be unhappy from the economic downturn and pray for a quick return to the normal rate of planetary extermination.  Economic growth is at the center of corporate economics. Creating an ecologically sane society requires progressives to ditch the ideology of growth and visualize an America with less production.

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 passionate 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. [5]

By the nineteenth century, some had work weeks of 15 hours per day for 6 days per week plus 8–10 hours on Sunday. [6]  At the same time that many were organizing to reduce their hours to 12 per day, the Chartist movement made the 10 hour day “their political, election cry.” [7, 8]

The high point of US labor organizing during the 19th century was on May 1, 1886 when 300,000 workers went on strike for the eight hour day.  The brutal repression that came down in Chicago with the Haymarket arrests and executions sparked the international celebration of May Day. [9]

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

First, the leadership of the dominant labor organization of the day, the Knights of Labor, attempted to put brakes on the 8-hour movement.  It was often the grassroots that pushed forward, dragging the leaders behind them in city after city.

Second, the 1886 strike wave, far more than previous labor actions, “became above all strikes for power.” [10] The 1886 demands were for control over work hours, hiring and firing, and the organization of work.

Third, and most important, the struggle for the 8-hour day did not wait until the 10-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.” [11]  Workers who only a few years earlier had 12–15 hour per day jobs were now demanding the 8-hour day.  Marx similarly wrote that the Chartist movement for the 10 hour day was popular amongst those with a work week of up to 100 hours.

Does anyone work for less than 40 hours?

While interviewing Spanish longshoremen in 1989, I spent hours talking to Juan Madrid in Barcelona.  Every summer he and his wife had the problem of making sure that they had the same month for vacation. “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 US 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 6-hour day. [12]  In 1990 BMWs plant in Regensburg adopted a 36 hour week.  German Volkswagen employees accepted a 10% pay cut to achieve a 28.8 hour work week. The Digital corporation had 530 employees who opted for a 4-day week with a 7% pay cut so that 90 jobs could be saved. [13]

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 7-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. [14]

It is not unknown for politicians to champion the cause of fewer hours.  Before joining the Supreme Court, as a US Senator Hugo Black introduced legislation for a 30 hour work week in 1933.  [15] More recently, the French Senate looked into a 33-hour week. [16]

Michael Fox has a great account of the current mushrooming of worker co-ops in Venezuela.  He includes a T-shirt co-op which “decided to work six-hour shifts to make time for family and education.” [17]

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 1500 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. [18]

New managers who began running Kellogg had no enthusiasm for the shorter work day.  They polled workers in 1946 and found that 77% of men and 87% 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.

The experience at Kellogg indicates that it is absolutely false to say that all workers all of the time crave more stuff and will sacrifice anything to get it.  Karl Marx made a similar observation when writing about “The Working-Day.”  Quoting results of a poll of those who had labored excruciating hours at a Lancashire factory, “They would much prefer working 10 hours for less wages…” [19]

Why would any progressive criticize a 30 hour work week?

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 amidst mountains of useless products.  An hour of labor now produces more goods than has ever been the case in the history of humanity.  Combining these 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.” [20]  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.” [21]

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 4-hour work day. [22]  He maintained that such a drastic cut in working hours “was necessary to prevent society from becoming disastrously materialistic.” [23]

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. [24]  Similarly, J.W. Smith argued that “over 50% of our industrial capacity has nothing to do with producing for consumer needs.” [25]  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% of industry that is producing nothing useful for society. [26]

In a more recent analysis, Smith sifts through the US economy sector by sector to conclude that “we could all work 2.3 days per week with no drop in our living standard.” [27]

It’s a rare economist who is capable of realizing that there is no reason to constantly scramble for the possession of more objects that fall apart more rapidly.  British philosopher Bertrand Russell also thought that four hours of work per day should be plenty to supply the necessities of life. [28]

Russell was thinking similarly to Benjamin Franklin, who wrote over 200 years ago:

…if every Man and Woman would work for four Hours each Day on something useful, that Labour would produce sufficient to procure all the Necessities and Comforts of Life, Want and Misery would be banished out of the World, and the rest of the 24 hours might be Leisure and Pleasure. [29]

Labor has become vastly more productive since Ben Franklin contemplated the work day. However, total output grows even faster than labor productivity.  By including population growth and people seeking to live the lifestyle of the English-speaking rich, Ted Trainer ciphers that “by 2070 given 3% economic growth, total world economic output every year would then be 60 times as great as it is now [30].

This would be a 6000% 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. [31]  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 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…

1. Halting the cancerous growth of useless fall-apart junk production requires a drastic shortening of the work week; and,

2. 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. 

There remains an enormous problem that permeates every other barrier to shortening the working day. As long as production is based on the maximization of profit, each corporation is pushed to extend working hours as long as possible for fear the competition will do it first.  As Marx described with Lugosian clarity:

The prolongation of the working-day, beyond the limits of the natural day, into the night, … quenches only in a slight degree the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.  To appropriate labour during all 24 hours of the day is, therefore, the inherent tendency of capitalist production. [32]

In the 21st century, we should update this to say that capital feeds with two fangs: one to suck the blood of labor and the other fang to drain life from Mother Earth. 

30 for 40? (or, 20 for 40?)

Can the 20 hour work week become a wooden stake held by the environmental movement as it is pounded by labor? Maybe; but not necessarily.  A stake that is driven too shallow will allow the demon to awaken with renewed strength.

Today, the demand of 20 hours work for 40 hours pay is more necessary than the demand “30 for 40” was half a century ago.  Capital has made this true by enslaving workers to credit.  Each purchase of a car, a home, or an entertainment system on credit means the buyer is less likely to be able to survive a reduction in pay if hours drop by 30%, 40% or 50%. 

Short of a complete forgiving of working class debt (which may not be a bad idea), labor is forced to demand the same pay when struggling for fewer hours.  This is true when the business that hires them cannot provide all the components of a full “social wage.”  But a government which doles out trillions to banking thieves could easily find funds for social wages.

Thus, what is necessary for each labor contract is not a good strategy for federal legislation. At the national level, it is far more prudent to seek a full social wage than “30 for 40” or “20 for 40.” 

A combination of single payer health insurance, full social security benefits, real public education, mass transportation, unemployment benefits, clean water and air, and a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures and utility shutoffs are what people really need.  They are easily worth 40–50% of the pay that most working people take home.  Each one is a genuine improvement in the quality of people’s lives. In contrast, a particular rate of pay is something that corporations have long since figured out how to transform from a gain to an illusion of a gain.

Imagine a movement for a 4-hour work day that sweeps the country with even more intensity than did the strike wave of 1886.  After months of conflict, Congress announces, “Go back to work and we will legislate a 24 hour work week and require every employer to pay the same as before.”  The 40% reduction in hours would be great but the “same pay” part is more than a little bit deceptive.  Here are some of the ways that employers could try to trick us into believing that we were getting the same rate of pay while it actually went down:

Devaluation of money.  The government simply prints more money, causing its purchasing power to drop.  We have the same amount of money as before but now we can buy far less with it. With a 40% drop in hours worked (40 to 24 hours per week), it would not be surprising to see the government engineer a 40% drop in the value of money.

Intensification of labor.  One of the most common justifications for a shorter work week is that people will be able to work harder to match the reduction in hours. Manufacturing workers would hear “You just won a 40% decrease in hours.  Let’s see if we can get the line going fast enough to match that.”  An office worker hears “So, now we have 24-hour work weeks. That means instead of processing 120 claims per hour, now you will process 200.”  Or a teacher gets told, “You used to have 21 students in your class, now there will now be 35.”  Intensification of labor leads to workers becoming more exhausted during a shorter work week than they previously did, meaning that extra hours of leisure are spent recovering from the working day.

Devaluation of commodities.  Marx said that the dynamic of capitalist production was to extend the time worked until it encompassed all 24 hours in a day.  He wrote this before corporations figured out that they could keep people buying the stuff they manufactured by designing it to deteriorate as quickly as possible.  After decades of planned obsolescence, we can confidently say that the new inherent tendency of capitalist production is to design each product so that it falls apart or becomes out of fashion between the time the consumer purchases it and takes it out of the box at home.

All that corporations need to do is put planned obsolescence on fast forward.  Now everything breaks down 40% faster than it did before.  Superficial purchasing power does not change but meaningful purchasing power has declined to be in line with the shorter work week.

Ideology of idolatry.  A completely different danger of seeking to perpetuate a fetish on consumption is that it sinks humanity below the level we should be striving to raise ourselves above.  The flip side of a corporate economy pushing to extend the length of the working day is filling every non-working hour with a desire to acquire more objects. It could not be otherwise, or else corporations would have no way to sell the exploding mountains of stuff produced.

In Marx’s famous vision of a communistic society, he does not portray people who mindlessly produce every object they can.  Rather, he envisions a world where work satisfies individual creative needs as well as social and economic needs.  He says something to the effect that “society makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, criticize in the afternoon, make tofu in the evening, and text message after dinner, just as I have a mind to…” [33]

To abandon this vision and to adopt the corporate mindset of endless idol worship would wreck any hope for labor’s role in cementing an alliance with environmentalists. Why would people working to preserve endangered species, halt toxic emissions and curb global warming embrace a movement whose goals exacerbate each of these problems?  Nor would indigenous people be wild about uniting with a labor movement dedicated to the destruction of their land, seas and forests so that consumer lusts of Westerners could experience fleeting gratification.

My preceding essay for the Reimagining Society Project, “We can produce less and consume more,” details how to cut our environmental impact by 50–90% by manufacturing consumer goods that last for decades instead of months, building homes that last for centuries instead of decades, providing health care based on preventive community care rather than the insurance and medical equipment industries, transportation based on bikes and buses rather than cars, and a military downsized 90–99%. [34]  There is no reason to envision a world where people must “sacrifice” or “do without” for us to have an ecological existence.

When US 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 goods we produce.  Drastically cutting the hours we work will help save the Earth’s environment only if it is part of an overarching goal to improve the quality of our lives while reducing the grand mass of manufactured objects.

A labor/environmental alliance needs to be “organic” (in more ways than one).  It cannot be based on the corporate ideology that we have two purposes in life: to work longer hours and to consume more stuff.  A new progressive alliance need to redefine humanness as joyously interacting, caring, contemplating, and especially contemplating what we, as a species, should be creating during our productive hours.

Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is published for members of The Greens/Green Party USA and can be reached at fitzdon@aol.com


1. Heinberg, R. (2003). The party’s over: Oil, war and the fate of industrial societies. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 272.

2. Bryce, R. (2008). Gusher of lies: The dangerous delusions of “energy independence.” New York: Public Affairs. 17.

3. Diener, E., & Seligman,M.E.P. (2004). beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 1–31. 

4. Holmes, T.H., & Rahe, R.H. (1967). The Social Readjustment Rating Scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 11, 213–218.

5. Marx, K. (1974). Capital: A critical analysis of capitalist production, Volume 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers (first published in 1887), 264.

6. Capital, 252.

7. Capital, 267.

8. According to labor activist David Macaray, parallel efforts happened in the US, with an 1835 textile strike to shorten the work week to 6 days of 11 hours and a Boston carpenter strike for a 10 hour day. Personal communication. April 25, 2009.

9. Roediger, D. (1998). Haymarket incident. In M.J. Buhle, P. Buhle & D Georgakas (Eds.) Encyclopedia of the American left (296–297). New York: Oxford University Press.

10. Brecher, J. (1972). Strike! Boston: South End Press, 32.

11. Brecher, 42.

12. Jon Bekken (2000, Arguments for a four-hour day.  http://www.iww.org/en/node/758) also notes that New York City electricians won a 25-hour work week (with obligatory overtime) in 1962; in the 1980s German metal workers struck for a 35-hour week; and Danish “private sector” workers went on strike in 1998 for a 6-hour day.

13. Bush, K. (1994). Work less and everyone works. In Context: A Journal of Humane Sustainable Culture, 37, 42. http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC37/Bush2.htm

14. Kaminski, T. Personal communication. May 16, 2009.

15. Kaplan, J. (May/June, 2008). The gospel of consumption: And the better future we left behind. Orion Magazine. http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/2962

16. Bush, 42.

17. Fox, M. (May 22, 2007). Venezuela’s co-op boom. Yes! Magazine. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/2393

18. Kaplan’s description of the Kellogg experience is based on Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt’s (1996) Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

19. Capital, 270.  This was in response to owners violating a 10 hour statute by forcing a 12 to 15 hour day with higher pay.

20. Kaplan, 4.

21. Bekken.

22. A.O. Dahlberg, 91, Economist and inventor. New York Times (October 2, 1989), D12. http://www.nytimes.com/1989/10/02/obituaries/ao-dahlberg-91-economist-and-inventor.html

23. Kaplan, 3.

24. Schor, J.B. (1991). The overworked American: The unexpected decline of leisure. New York: Basic Books.

25. Smith, J.W. (1989). The world’s wasted wealth. Kalispell, MT: New Worlds Press, xv.

26. Smith (1989) Book jacket.

27. Smith, J.W. (1994). Wasted time, wasted wealth. In Context: A Journal of Humane Sustainable Culture, 37, 18. http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC37/Smith.htm

28. Russell, B. (1959). The prospects of industrial civilization, 2nd edition. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 40.

29. Benjamin Franklin, Quoted in Campbell, J. (1999). Recovering Benjamin Franklin. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 228.

30. Trainer, T. (2007). Renewable energy cannot sustain a consumer society. The Netherlands: Springer, 2.

31. Sahlins, M. (1974).  Stone age economics. London: Tavistock Publications.

32. Capital, 245.

33. Marx, K. The German ideology, quoted in Fromm, E. (1961), Marx’s concept of man. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 42 with temporal adjustments.
34. Fitz, D. (July 15, 2009). We can produce less and consume more. http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/22004

Leave a comment