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.

2 thoughts on “Now U.S. labor unions are talking about a 4-day week

Comments are closed.

Scroll Up