Deliberate Rest

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Category: Politics and Policy

Paddy Bettington on the political radicalism of shorter working hours

In the companies I’ve been studying that have moved to 4-day weeks, unions have played little or no role in setting working hour or working conditions. But unions historically have played a huge role in setting working hours, and that’s one reason unions in the UK and the Labour Party have advocated for a shorter week. Paddy Bettington, a founder of Labour 4 Day Week, explains this in his new essay “Why the Four-Day Week Matters:”

The five-day week, the eight-hour day, paid holiday, sick pay and maternity pay were all instituted by mass movements, trade unions and collective bargaining….

[W]hen John McDonnell announced Labour’s plans to move to a 32-hour week at this year’s conference, he was clear that the primary mechanism to achieve this would be freeing the unions to engage in collective bargaining once more.

In the coming months and years, the Labour Party will enter government and be forced to institute – and prioritise – the myriad elements of their political programme. The move to a 32-hour week mustn’t be seen by the left as a nicety dreamt up by policy wonks, but as an essential means to loosen the grip of capitalism and a necessary foundation of a socialist agenda.

In a previous essay, he made the case for union involvement in the push to 4-day weeks:

The four-day week is not a silver bullet, but does offer a simple way to tackle a range of issues that affect the entire country. It represents a way of redistributing efficiency gains of new technology – if we’re going to have more automated tasks, we need to make sure that workers see the benefit. It would address the unnecessary contradiction of underemployment and overwork existing side-by-side. It would allow undervalued domestic and care work – disproportionately undertaken by women in our economy – to be shared more equally. It would bring our typical working week in line with our more productive neighbours France and Germany. It can lessen the rampant work-consumption cycle that drives climate change. Most importantly, perhaps, it can offer people more control over their lives.

There are individual cases that show a shift is already happening: some companies from across the world employ a four-day week, of their own accord, and see positive results. But we can’t rely on the practices of a handful of enlightened companies. The transformation we want to bring about requires demand from below and responsive policy from above. Using existing democratic structures is key. The Labour Party and trade unions are not only the most effective (and obvious) institutions to play this role, but also the natural champions of such a policy.

Bettington’s right that unions in Europe and United States have played an important role historically in defining national policy and the rules under which large employers organized their workdays, and the pieces are a nice illustration of how working hours and labor power have been connected. And you can believe that when the Times comes out against it, one reason they do is is that they recognize that the campaign for a 4-day week could revitalize labor unions and attract voter to left-wing parties.

Marx on “What is a working-day?”

Capitalism is Boring
Oxford, 2008

From Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1:

“What is a working-day? What is the length of time during which capital may consume the labour-power whose daily value it buys? How far may the working-day be extended beyond the working-time necessary for the reproduction of labour-power itself?” It has been seen that to these questions capital replies: the working-day contains the full 24 hours, with the deduction of the few hours of repose without which labour-power absolutely refuses its services again.

Hence it is self-evident that the labourer is nothing else, his whole life through, than labour-power, that therefore all his disposable time is by nature and law labour-time, to be devoted to the self-expansion of capital. Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfilling of social functions and for social intercourse, for the free-play of his bodily and mental activity, even the rest time of Sunday (and that in a country of Sabbatarians!) — moonshine!

But in its blind unrestrainable passion, its were-wolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery. It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential.

It is not the normal maintenance of the labour-power which is to determine the limits of the working-day; it is the greatest possible daily expenditure of labour-power, no matter how diseased, compulsory, and painful it may be, which is to determine the limits of the labourers’ period of repose.

Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power, that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.

[Paragraph breaks added for ease of reading.]

Now U.S. labor unions are talking about a 4-day week

Unions in the UK have been talking about the 4-day week for some time, and now American unions are starting to take notice, Alexia Fernández Campbell reports in Vox.

Now labor unions are making the case for even less work: dropping days worked down to four.

That’s one of the changes unions are proposing as part of their vision for the future of work, which is outlined in a report to be released Friday by the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of labor unions in the US….

As technology makes workers more productive, unions argue, why not give them three-day weekends? Not 40 hours compressed into four days. Labor unions are proposing a 32-hour workweek, with employees earning no less than they did before.

It may seem radical, a change that businesses would resist. But Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, assures me it’s not.

“We are very serious about this,” Trumka told me. “If we’re going to free up jobs for more people, then we have to go there.”

The AFL-CIO has published a new report on The Future of Work and Unions. Here’s the section on working hours:

Predictions that artificial intelligence and other new technologies will make workers far more productive in the future have generated interest in the prospect of a “leisure dividend” that allows for the reduction of overall work hours. The key question is whether this “leisure dividend” will be shared broadly by working people.

Even if the predicted spike in worker productivity never materializes, there is a very strong case for redistributing work hours today—that is, for limiting the excessive hours worked by some people, thereby making more work hours available to those who want to work more, and giving all workers more “time sovereignty” over our working life.

The movement for an eight-hour day, followed by the demand for a 40-hour week, was driven by the U.S. labor movement. The authors of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 intended to redistribute work by giving businesses an incentive to reduce excessive hours for some workers and reallocate them to the unemployed and underemployed.

Passage of the FLSA ushered in a period of about four decades in which average weekly work hours steadily fell. In recent decades, however, progress has stalled, and U.S. workers work more hours per year than workers in most other developed countries. At the same time, there has been a recurrence of the problem of insufficient work hours for some and irregular schedules for many, especially for workers in the retail and fast food industries.

In a paper presented to our commission, Prof. Juliet Schor of Boston College, author of The Overworked American (1992), argues that reducing overall working time has the potential to produce a “triple dividend”: (1) spreading work hours to more employees, thus minimizing unemployment; (2) lowering stress levels, increasing leisure time and improving workers’ quality of life; and (3) reducing adverse impact on the environment.

Our commission’s Service and Retail and the Federal Sector Subcommittees recommend strengthening the labor movement by mobilizing around such big issues as shorter work days and workweeks with no reduction in pay for workers. Work hours can be reduced by bargaining or legislating a four-day workweek; earlier retirement; stronger overtime protections; paid holidays; paid vacations; partial unemployment benefits for workers whose hours are reduced (“short-time compensation”); and the “right to disconnect” from digital devices and work. Most of these policies would redistribute work hours to those who have too little work.

Insufficient work hours also can be addressed specifically by legislating or bargaining minimum work hours and giving part-time workers first claim on available work. Unpredictable schedules can be addressed by bargaining or legislating premium pay for on-call scheduling (schedule changes that occur without sufficient warning) and shifts that offer insufficient hours, as well as more worker control over scheduling (“time sovereignty”). Reforms to make scheduling fairer and improve work-life balance will be especially important in meeting the needs of workers, particularly working parents, enabling more of them to pursue their careers. If working people can bargain or legislate more time sovereignty and a “leisure dividend” without any reduction in our pay, this could be a key mechanism to help ensure the benefits of technological progress are shared broadly by working people.

I don’t talk much about unions or government policy in my forthcoming book SHORTER (US | UK), because for the companies I’m looking at, the move has been driven from the top (but very much involves everyone’s participation). So far, it’s happened in industries that are suffering labor shortages, losing experienced people to burnout or work-life imbalance, and see a way to convert technological innovations and productivity increases into time savings for workers, not just higher profits for companies.

These companies are very important as prototypes, in effect: they show that shorter hours can be implemented, today, without wrecking companies. But at some point, in order to move shorter workweeks from the innovators and early adopters into the mainstream, I think it’s going to be necessary to involve policymakers and unions.

“there is much to be said for Mr Pang’s conclusion that the belief in the power of the 80-hour week is piffle.”

Views from the Eye

Financial Times editor and columnist Pilita Clark has a piece that puts REST against the workaholic pose of the current government:

Brexit, one of the most important events in British postwar history, may have been placed in the hands of men and women who have gone without a summer break and worked for days on end for the best part of two months straight.

This is not brilliant. This is loopy.

There is plenty of evidence showing people who work mad hours are more prone to get ill, drink heavily and make rubbish decisions….

A lot of people think they can get by with just five or six hours of sleep a night with no serious dip in performance. Experts say they are deluded: all but a tiny portion of us need a good seven to nine hours a night.

Worst of all, more hours do not necessarily mean more productivity. A study of workers at a global consultancy firm a few years ago found their bosses could not tell the difference between those who toiled for 80 hours a week and those who simply pretended to. [Ed: This is the great study by Erin Reid.]

This is especially striking to me because Boris Johnson (whose penchant for overwork, or at for least crisis-provoking procrastination, I’ve noted here before) is a huge fan of Winston Churchill, and so must be aware that during the war Churchill worked a lot, but also was very disciplined about getting rest when he needed.

This was driven home to me when I visited the Churchill War Rooms, the underground complex from which he ran the war. Among the meeting rooms, radio rooms, etc., there’s this:

Churchill War Rooms

Churchill had a bed installed in the War Rooms, and every afternoon he took a nap. As I explain in REST, Churchill

regarded his midday naps as essential for maintaining his mental balance, renewing his energy, and reviving his spirits. He had gotten into the habit of napping during World War I, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, and even during the Blitz Churchill would retire to his private room in the War Rooms after lunch, undress, and sleep for an hour or two…. Churchill’s valet, Frank Sawyers, later recalled, “It was one of the inflexible rules of Mr. Churchill’s daily routine that he should not miss this rest.”

A couple other rooms also had small beds in them so his more senior could catch up on sleep when they needed.

Churchill War Rooms

Now, Churchill spent a lot of time in the bunker, and it was his command center through the worst of the war, when things looked very dicey for Britain and the Allies. Yet, he still made time for rest. I think it’s hard to argue that this didn’t improve his decision-making and leadership, but it also had a subtler impact, I think:

Not only did a nap help Churchill keep up his energy, his sangfroid also inspired his cabinet and officers. Napping during boring parliamentary debates was one thing. Going to sleep literally while bombs were falling signaled Churchill’s confidence in his staff and his belief that the dark days would pass.

Hitler, in contrast, was famous for his erratic sleep habits and reliance on drugs to keep himself going for long periods. If you wanted someone who illustrates how working long hours doesn’t lead to better results, you couldn’t find a better example. (Indeed, the whole Reich turns out to have been really into stimulants: they described meth as “National Socialism in pill form.”)

And it didn’t send a good message to his subordinates. There’s no better way to say “I don’t trust you to do a good job” than  overwork.

One other point: if you read the comments on the piece, they’re basically why I’ve written my next book:

This all sounds good, except if you work for a company that demands that you work 24/7, you will lose your job if you don’t deliver.  I worked for several companies, on salary, that gave you so much work to do that you had to work virtually 7 days a week to get it done….

Japanese and Koreans, who unnecessarily hang around the workplace after 5pm, need to read this.

My partner is Japanese and is angry at that part of Japanese work culture. I used to work for a large corp in Tokyo and during our busy season we’d stay until midnight. However, after 5/6 pm every day I’d notice a dramatic drop in my energy and focus.

Lots of comments point to the structural impediments that constrain people from working more effectively, and working less; and they’re absolutely right that there are hard limits to how much we can do as individuals to reduce our working hours. This is why it’s important, I think, to show how to change the structures, to look at the companies (in the UK, Asia, United States, and elsewhere) that are already moving to 4-day or 30-hour weeks, and to learn from them how to redesign work.

Also, if the FT firewall gets in your way, there’s also this reprint in Channel News Asia.

Washington Post on the 4-day week in America

Jeff Stein at the Washington Post has a piece about the 4-day week and the lack of interest in it among American progressives and unions:

In Europe, signs abound of interest in continuing to cut working hours. The four-day week has won backing from some of the biggest unions in Ireland and Britain, while plans to dramatically cut working hours have been embraced by large unions in Germany, the Netherlands and France….

But so far, the idea has failed to gain significant attention from the American left or labor movement. Jon Steinman, who worked at the Office of Congressional Ethics, said he is starting an advocacy group in the United States to push a four-day week, although the organization is still in its infancy.

The Democratic Socialists of America and the Justice Democrats, two left-wing groups that have pushed Democrats left, have not backed the idea yet. None of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have embraced the idea, despite similarly ambitious proposals for a federal jobs guarantee or a universal basic income.

Planet Money on “Japan’s Worker Shortage” and working hours

Scenes from Tokyo

NPR’s Planet Money has a piece on efforts in Japan to allow people to work less:

Some companies in Japan are going bankrupt because of the country’s critical labor shortage. Officials point to a declining birthrate — which has led to a shortage of workers — and an infamously demanding workplace culture that is discouraging some people from entering the job market at all. This past April, Japan’s legislative body introduced a novel solution to these two problems: a law requiring workers to work less.

[The Japanese government hopes that] a cap on overtime could alter Japan’s work culture, bring new people — particularly women — into the workplace, and solve the country’s labor shortage.

You can listen to the episode below (if my efforts to embed an audio player worked):

Or you can read the transcript.

As I’ve written before, number of Japanese companies have been experimenting with different kinds of 4-day weeks: some big employers like 7-Eleven and Uniqlo offer workers the option of doing four 10-hour days per week, in an effort to give workers longer stretches of unbroken free time. Japanese e-commerce company Zozo is actually the world’s biggest company running on a 30-hour week.

Shortening working hours and unintended consequences:

Koreans have had some of the longest working hours in the developed world: longer than the workaholic United States, Europe, and even Japan (which is often Korea’s benchmark in economic and business matters). While this solid work ethic has been important for the country’s economic growth, it’s had its downsides, and for years advocates have argued that limiting working hours would improve productivity, family life, and quality of life.

Long hours can also enable bad behavior among bosses. As a recent New York Times article explains,

South Koreans often suffer from a work culture they call gapjil. This word describes the imperious sense of entitlement that authority figures feel over their employees, whom they expect to wait on them and cater to their whims.

The most famous example is the “nut rage” incident, in which the daughter of the chairman of Korean Air threw a tantrum over how she was served nuts on a flight.

Recently the government acted to rein in working hours, passing a law that went into effect on July 1 that shortens the maximum workweek from 68 hours to 52 hours. The aim was to boost productivity and expand employment. President Moon Jae-in pointed to studies showing that

labor productivity [would rise] with every percentage point of weekly work hours reduced. During his campaign, he pledged to create 500,000 new jobs by enforcing a 52-hour workweek.

But as this Guardian article explains, the way the government has gone about doing it is having some unfortunate unintended consequences.

For their part, white-collar and office workers

have rejoiced at the new law. Some have long complained of a culture that expected employees to stay late despite a lack of work.

Others say bosses would routinely assign extra tasks outside normal hours, leading many employees to procrastinate all day since they knew they had to stay late regardless of workload.

I’ve heard from junior people at companies like Samsung and LG that “you don’t leave until the boss leaves, and the boss never leaves,” and that the long hours don’t translate into more work, but rather higher rates of presenteeism. When you know you’re going to be at the office until 9 for no particularly good reason, you’re more likely to engage in what Frederick Winslow Taylor referred to as “soldiering.”

But the new regulation intended to combat long hours in Seoul’s steel and glass office towers has backfired for many doing manual or irregular labour, with people flocking to poorly regulated industries and facing pay cuts.

Something like a third of Korean workers labor in jobs with irregular hours, and the new limits– and threats of jail terms for employers who violate them– have led to substantial cuts in pay for these workers.

As a result, lots of them are taking second or even third jobs to make up the loss of wages.

[W]orking-class people have largely mocked the new law for forcing them to take second or third jobs, saying: “Instead of a life with dinner, there’s a new life where you have to skip dinner.”

About 20,000 people have flocked to become on-demand chauffeurs since the new law passed, according to Kim Jong-yong, head of the Korean Association of Relief Drivers.

It’s not clear that if this was something that the government just didn’t anticipate, or what; but it sounds like a real problem is unfolding, and it illustrates how policies meant to shorten working hours and improving the lives of workers need to pay close attention to their effects on both salaried and hourly workers, and not overlook irregular workers.

Companies trying to work with these policies maybe haven’t always thought through the implementation very carefully. Indeed, the head of the German-Korean Chamber of Commerce recently warned that this could hurt exports. Not to put too much faith in national stereotypes, but when you have a German technocrat warning that you’re being too inflexible, you might have a problem.

Less dramatically, perhaps, the new law has also cost restaurants and benefitted grocery stores, as more people are able to go home and cook:

South Korean workers are leaving their offices and factories earlier thanks to a mandated shorter workweek, which seems to be bad news for restaurants and bars….

Supermarkets and online grocers, on the other hand, have benefited from workers spending more time at home. “We do not have exact numbers yet, but sales of fresh foods like fish and meat are rising,” said a Lotte Group executive. Demand has grown now that people are going home earlier than before and making their own dinners.

E-commerce website operator eBay Gmarket reports that for the July 1-9 period, sales of imported meat jumped 88% on the year and kimchi rose 36%. Sales of coupons for restaurants, meanwhile, dropped 25%.

“There has been no change in daytime customers, but a big drop-off at night,” said the 50-year-old owner of a shop that sells food from South Jeolla Province. July sales so far have plunged 20% to 30% on the year. “I am thinking of installing a ticket machine for orders to reduce staff,” he added.

Finland’s basic income experiment ends

Finland has been running a limited experiment with Universal Basic Income, and has decided to pull the plug.

The experiment with so-called universal basic income has captured global attention as a potentially promising way to restore economic security at a time of worry about inequality and automation…. [However the] Finnish government has opted not to continue financing it past this year, a reflection of public discomfort with the idea of dispensing government largess free of requirements that its recipients seek work.

There are UBI experiments going on in other parts of the world, but the fact that Finns are skeptical of the no-strings-attached approach to basic income, that suggests that other countries with less social cohesion and trust in government will find UBI to be a steep climb. Further, as the article notes,

This may be the main reason that basic income has lost momentum in Finland: It is effectively redundant.

Health care is furnished by the state. University education is free. Jobless people draw generous unemployment benefits and have access to some of the most effective training programs on earth.

“In a sense,” said Mr. Hiilamo, the social policy professor, “Finland already has basic income.”

I find the idea of a basic income intriguing, but I’m not really sure what to make of it. My concern isn’t that giving Those People money will just lead them to waste it; the studies I’ve seen suggest that on the whole, people in UBI experiments are more thoughtful stewards of that money than the Rich Kids of Instagram. But the idea that UBI can be used to bribe people into accepting the robot revolution, or that people will trade cash for the dismantling of the state (which is what people like Milton Friedman and Charles Murray have envisioned when they advocate UBI, as I understand it), don’t fill me with confidence that it would be good policy.

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