"Some workers got shorter work hours, but what they didn't get was stable pay," says Karen Nussbaum, who directs the AFL-CIO affiliate Working America. In what's left of the labor movement, nobody is even bothering to ask for shorter workdays; it's hard enough to win a living wage, paid sick days, a bit of vacation time, and parental leave. Compared with when she began organizing women workers in the 1970s, Nussbaum says, "the crisis is different--more acute and more widespread."
You've probably heard of this absurd little book, The 4-Hour Workweek. (Trading stocks on your home computer.) It's a lonely yet best-selling fascination with the idea that by working smarter (as a "day trader"), but not harder, one just might be able to join author Timothy Ferris and the "New Rich" with some solid stock investments and a modicum of maintenance work -- 4 hours a week as the title of the book says. And it can happen--but only to a lucky few, among the million-plus suckers who've bought the book.
The idea of the four-hour work day that workers imagined a hundred years ago was different. It was for everyone, the natural and to-be-expected consequence of advancing technology. But in the decades since World War II, capitalism has not provided us with a shorter workday. The coming kingdom of leisure used to be considered a mainly technological issue, but it has turned out to be a political one. And the opponents to its realization are very, very powerful.
The Industrial Workers of the World considered shorter workdays with no cut in pay to be, in the words of one pamphlet, "THE Revolutionary Demand." The so-called Wobblies recognized that fewer hours would make sure workers reap the benefits of progress rather than let those benefits forevermore trickle upward.
In the past few months, there have been small indications of progress
After much pressure from organized labor, President Obama announced stricter federal rules on overtime pay; meanwhile, the government estimated that millions of workers might switch to part-time rather than full-time jobs because they can buy their own health insurance through the new system. This prompted Congressman Paul Ryan to express his fear that, with affordable coverage, "the incentive to work declines." Just the thought of the non-rich working less than every available hour of the day, and still having health insurance, was an affront to his idea of the American way. He actually said, "It's adding insult to injury." (Injury to whom, one might ask. To the corporate rich who might by these means have their con job questioned? Perish the thought!)
Time for the universal basic income or guaranteed annual income
The most practical approach to winning shorter workdays may be to detach necessities, like insurance, from employment. Peter Frase, an editor of Jacobin Magazine and one of the shorter workday's most capable advocates, calls for a universal basic income. People by that means able to cover their essential needs could then for the first time choose for themselves how much they want to work as a supplement to that. But unless there are powerful, disruptive movements demanding such measures, politicians and other elites will keep on repeating the lie that there simply isn't enough to go around. However, workers in countries with strong labor organizations know better. Gothenburg, Sweden is experimenting with a six-hour workday for municipal workers, while in France, where a 35-hour week is already common, unions are trying out a rule against checking work email after hours.