This week the Shadow Chancellor of the United Kingdom, John McDonnell, announced that under a Labour government, the average working week would be cut to 32 hours within a decade. That would be a big win for the British people, but as an American I can’t help but think, if they can do it, why not us? And why not sooner?
In America we’ve grown accustomed to begging for cost of living adjustments or small increases in the minimum wage. We cross our fingers and hope that Social Security and Medicare will still exist when we’ve reached retirement age.
We’ve been trained so effectively at limiting our economic expectations that many Americans feel a knee-jerk sense of suspicious of those advocating for radical changes to increase the quality of life of the working class. For that reason, the idea of pushing for a four day work week will seem, to many, to be a step too far.
Long ago, labor movements decided that the status quo — 60+ hour work weeks, exploitative pay, child labor, unsafe work conditions — was unacceptable, and demanded more. They succeeded, spectacularly. After decades of organizing, strikes, and more, they got multiple pieces of legislation passed to enshrine new rights for the working class.
Since then, American workers proved more than capable of adapting to an ever-changing international economic system, with average worker productivity going up consistently and dramatically. Between 1979 and 2018, productivity went up 69.6 percent.
That extra productivity and the value it represented went somewhere. It just didn’t make it into workers pockets. How do you go from CEOs earning 30 times what an average worker makes in 1978 to CEOs making 271 times as much in 2016?
Not by prioritizing worker pay. Over the above time period, hourly pay for average workers went up only 11.6 percent. That’s 0.3 percent per year. That’s an insult, but one that can be corrected if workers demand it.
You see, over time wealthy interests discovered that winning elections by embracing policies people support will always be more difficult than simply buying politicians to institute your agenda, and so gradually legislation and regulations were skewed more and more in favor of corporations. Workers were left behind.
They were also exposed to decades of anti-union talking points on the major news networks, leading to ever-decreasing union participation rates. By 2018, it had hit just 10.5 percent, roughly half of what it was as recently as the 1980s. So is it any wonder many have grown disillusioned about what a renewed labor movement could hope to accomplish?
Let’s be clear, however, about how the transition to a four day work week needs to be negotiated. While employers might benefit in a number of ways from the change, from healthier work-life balance, to higher employee satisfaction and productivity, this movement will never succeed if it waits patiently until corporations decide to go along with it voluntarily.
This isn’t going to be given by employers, any more than they willingly gave the 40 hour work week, overtime pay, or pensions. This is a benefit to be taken by workers who will not accept how significantly they have been barred from enjoying the material fruits of their significant labors.
A four day work week will not erase the decades of wage theft documented above, but it will provide other benefits. Workers will be freed up to participate in the economy more fully.
They will have more time to spend with their families, with all of the attendant benefits that would bring. They would have more time for creative pursuits and exercise. They would have, to put it simply, far greater freedom than they currently enjoy.
America’s workers certainly deserve more pay and greater benefits, but that’s just the starting point of what they’re owed. They deserve not to be forced to grind their bodies down prematurely working endless hours.
They deserve not to have chronic stress shorten their life span, exacerbate medical conditions, and negatively impact their relationships. They deserve to look forward to a retirement in which their bodies will still be physically and mentally capable of enjoying the years they’ve earned.
Depression and anxiety. Heart disease and high blood pressure. Obesity and stroke. These read like a best of list of chronic conditions Americans commonly suffer from. They’re also all caused or exacerbated by chronic stress.
Cutting down the number of hours we are required to work could not only save our nation’s workers from immeasurable suffering, but also significant medical expenses. Time off is quite literally money saved in this case.
Again, it will not be given. It must be taken. Our history shows, though, that if we fight, we can win.
It will require the right leaders, both on the part of existing unions and in Congress and the White House. It will require primarying our elected representatives who give at best lip service to the needs of workers.
It will require sacrifices, from strikes to organized pushes to form unions in sectors that have so far resisted them. These are not insignificant costs, particularly when added to the burdens so many workers are already enduring.
If we succeed, however, it could mean a more substantive change to the quality of life of American workers than we have seen in more than a half century.
That is a goal worth fighting for.
John Iadarola is the host and producer of the daily political news show The Damage Report on TYT.