Four-Day Workweeks: Change for the Better?


This article originally appeared at Truth-out.org.

Changes in the capitalist system's operating procedures, rules and regulations are always presented as if they were in everyone's interest, a kind of "everybody wins" social progress. The changes usually turn out to be mostly or entirely in capitalists' interests since they run their system that way. Are we surprised and shocked?

To take one example, changes in production methods (new machines, new techniques) arrive with much fanfare. We are told that they will reduce or eliminate drudgery, hard work, etc. After centuries of these "technical advances," the bottom line is that workers and their families are now working more hours at more jobs. Their resulting levels of mental as well as physical exhaustion have indeed "advanced." Whole new industries, including those producing and distributing legal and illegal drugs, have arisen to make profits from helping workers cope with those exhaustions.

The "technical advances" did boost profits for capitalists. However, those advances' wider social benefits either never arrived or were far secondary to the social disruptions and burdens that they caused. Social benefits were mere afterthoughts - window-dressing aimed to gain workers' acceptance of each set of technical advances. The consistent point, purpose, and achievement of technical changes were to enhance capitalists' incomes. Adding insult to injury, capitalists mocked and dismissed workers' oppositions as selfishly and ignorantly slowing "progress."

Capitalists Want Shorter Workweeks

Another example is increasingly in the news today. Capitalists - and especially big ones - tell us that they want to shorten workweeks to 4 (or sometimes even 3) days instead of 5 to 6. Capitalists offer this shortening much as they have always offered technical advances: It's all about reducing workers' hard labor. If this happens, and once the dust clears, workers are worse off in key ways, will we be surprised and shocked yet again? Will we be attacked as "anti-progress" if we insist on questioning and analyzing 4-day workweeks?

For centuries, capitalists have pressured or forced employees to work more hours on more days of the week. Workers eventually organized and fought back (against then-routine 10-, 12-, and 14-hour work days for up to 6 days per week). That is why we now have legal rules governing days worked per week (basically 5) and hours per day (8). Indeed, the major workers' holiday around the world (except in the United States) is May 1 (Mayday), chosen to memorialize a brutal repression that failed to defeat US workers' fight for the 8-hour legal limit to the working day. Still today, in many places, workers struggle to establish or re-establish the 5-day and 8-hour limits.

So what are we to make of the billionaire big-business types - especially in the hi-tech industries - who have endorsed the idea of shortening the workweek from 5 to 4 days? How shall we understand that most US millionaires report that they support the idea of the 4-day work week or that an August 30, 2014, headline in Forbes Magazine read, "It's High Time for the 4-day Workweek"? The world's second richest man, Carlos Slim of Mexico, even recently proposed a global 3-day workweek.

Some employers are reacting to rising burnout and disaffection among their employees in response to the rising intensification of work imposed on them over recent decades. Badly overstressed workers make more mistakes, work less productively, get sick or depressed more often, and thereby hurt profits. Where the workweek's fifth day yields more accidents, lower productivity and higher absenteeism, etc., than earlier days, profit gains might flow from shifting to 4-day workweeks.

Some employers might choose to save money by closing the factory or office on the fifth day, turning off utilities and machinery when possible, etc. Other employers (especially stores and other retail businesses) might run their enterprises a full seven days of alternating 4-day and 3-day shifts. Workers might then compete for preferred shifts giving employers extra bargaining chips in negotiating wages with those workers.

Then too, the recent shrinkage or disappearance of benefit packages in the United States (health insurance, pension, etc.) removed a major reason why employers had demanded long workweeks. Formerly, once a worker was hired and provided with a real benefit package, the employer wanted the longest possible labor effort from that worker. The employer avoided hiring more workers, since each new hire cost another benefit package. It was cheaper - and hence more profitable - for employers to press for more labor hours/days from the already hired workers who already had their benefit packages. Their extra labor only cost more wages, since their basic benefit package was already paid for. As benefit packages were reduced or eliminated, new hires required correspondingly lower or no benefit package costs associated with their employment, so employers could more cheaply combine 4-day work weeks with hiring more workers.

However, a broad historical change is the more basic reason for the shift to shorter work weeks. After the 1970s, capitalists increasingly raised profits by moving production from the old centers of production (western Europe, North America, and Japan) to the new centers (Asia, Latin America, eastern Europe and Africa). That move was prompted by, and in turn reinforced, the entry of billions of working people into the capitalist world economy. These workers had formerly been kept outside of, or marginal, to global capitalism either by political hostilities (e.g., China and eastern Europe) or by their levels of extreme economic underdevelopment and distance from capitalism's centers. After the 1970s, political leaderships saw jobs, profits and rapid growth as rewards that they could reap by making their vast working-class masses available to capitalists based in the system's old centers. Jet travel and modern telecommunications were the indispensable allies of those leadership. Those technical changes enabled production to migrate from lower to higher profit locations, from the stagnating old to the growing new centers of capitalist production.

With the resulting vast increase of workers seeking capitalist employment, many more workers are now looking for jobs globally than such jobs exist or are emerging. Historically high rates of unemployment (statistically visible plus disguised) and low rates of labor force participation plague many countries. Countless press reports describe these problems increasingly dogging especially western Europe and north America (they were long endemic elsewhere).

Taking Advantage of Excess Labor

Seeing opportunity in the global excess labor supply, capitalists are proposing shorter workweeks. They expect more profits by the attendant savings and productivity benefits. The wages they would anyway have reduced for their workers (given how markets respond to excess supply of anything) may now appear more "justified" if workers' workweeks are reduced as well.

Most employers thus anticipate a shorter workweek as a means simply to reduce their employees' wages (and thus their incomes). Of course, some employers will reduce workweeks to 4 days while lengthening the working day above 8 hours. That might preserve the 40-hour work week (4x10 = 5x8), thereby cleverly undoing the long struggle for 8-hour workdays. If such lengthened workdays became "the new normal," we might even see a switch back to a 5-day week but at 50 hours (examples of this already exist).

Important Site of Struggle

In considering shortened workweeks, workers' goals differ from those of capitalists. The same was also true about technical advances over the last 200 years. Workers' primary concern is not profits, but rather 1) the conditions of the workplaces where they spend so large and important a part of their adult lives, and 2) the pay for their work and the standard of living it affords. Workers share an interest in a shorter workweek; they have been fighting for it across the history of capitalism. However, workers do so for reasons very different from those of employers. The length of the working week (and day) always was and continues to be an important site of struggle between capital and labor.

Workers approach a legal reduction of the workweek to 4 days by welcoming the prospect of a 50 percent increase in their weekend time (from 2 to 3 weekend days). Spouses would have more time for one another and their relationship and likewise parents for their children. Times for friendships, recreation, community activity, civic and political participation, household maintenance, and so on would all expand.

If employers compensated for the workweek reduction (from 5 to 4 days and thus from 40 to 32 hours) by hiring more workers (to make up that 8 hours difference), unemployment would shrink. To the extent that employers did not hire more workers and instead simply reduced total time worked (from 40 to 32 hours per worker), our production system would use up fewer resources and do less ecological damage. The environment could be better protected. From the standpoint of workers, society-wide benefits such as longer weekends, less unemployment and less environmental degradation are clear and big.

Yet workers also immediately pose this key question: How will a 4-day workweek be paid for and by whom? Will existing employees receive the same pay as before even though they work one day less per week while continuing to work the same number of hours per day (typically, 8) as before? That is one possibility. Then incomes remain the same for existing employees. If employers hire more workers to compensate for the reduced workweek, then total workers' incomes will rise. That in turn raises workers' total demands for consumer goods and services generating more jobs producing those outputs. This would be yet another benefit of reducing the days and hours of the workweek.

Employers' profits would fall if they paid workers the same weekly wage for 1 day less of work per week. Likewise, employers' profits would fall if they maintain total output by hiring more workers, because wages for those workers represent additional labor costs for the same output as before the workweek was cut to 4 days. The inescapable conclusion is this: One cost for society of a shorter workweek might be reduced profits for employers.

Generators of More Profit

Not surprisingly, employers who favor 4-day workweeks have thought about these questions, too. They do not want to suffer profit losses from a shorter workweek. On the contrary, their interest stems precisely from seeing shorter workweeks as effective generators of more profits. So they often propose that a 4-day week happen together with 9- or 10-hour workdays. In that way, employers get the same 40 hours of weekly work for the same wage outlay after as before the workweek reduction. This boosts profits by making more intensive use of plant, tools and equipment, saving on certain costs associated with longer work weeks, etc

Another way for employers to avoid losing profits with reduced workweeks is to lower the weekly pay of their employees. For example, employers could respond to a 20 per cent cut in the workweek's length (from 5 days to 4) by an equivalent 20 per cent cut in the worker's weekly pay. That, however, would cut total workers' incomes, hence their expenditures, and hence the quantity of goods and services sold or produced - a job-killing process. It would also sharply reduce the benefits of a longer weekend

A genuinely democratic society would openly discuss and debate whether, and in what ways, to reduce the workweek. The various benefits and costs of reducing the workweek would be listed and measured, the measurements and lists would be contested, and slowly the population would work toward a majority decision. Eventually, a majority vote would decide whether a work reduction would occur and how its benefits and costs would be apportioned across society.

In contemporary capitalist society, nothing remotely like such a democratic process occurs. Employers have routinely opposed and refused reduced work-weeks and blocked legislation that might impose such reductions. For many years, workweek reduction posed risks to their profits, and they acted accordingly. In most capitalist economies, no comparably organized force existed on the other side of the debate with sufficient resources to advocate effectively for reduced workweeks. Exceptionally, in parts of western Europe, social democratic parties, governments, unions, and allied voters have won workweeks reduced, for example, to 35 from 40 hours per week.

Employers spent prodigious sums to publicize the terrible things they would have to do (cut output, payrolls, investments, etc.) if their profits dropped because of reduced workweeks. Their stories, rendered in different styles by servile journalists, politicians and academics, were and are thinly disguised threats presented as if they were economic necessities. When they successfully frightened the public, the very idea of reduced workweeks faded from public discussion and could then be conveniently ignored as one way a society could gain the benefits listed above.

Ironically, as increasing numbers of major employers become favorable to reduced workweeks, they encounter the obstacles in public consciousness that they and other employers had cultivated for so long. So apparently now they will push for workweek reductions and concentrate their media messages on making sure such reductions take the profit-focused forms they prefer and not the alternative forms workers would prefer.

If they succeed, that will mark another step in the declines capitalism is imposing on its old centers. Workers there will lose incomes as further job cuts will take the form of workweek reductions. Desperate to hold on to the American Dream as it falls ever further beyond their reach, workers may increasingly take multiple jobs. Each job will have a shorter workweek, but multiple jobs would then mean that most workers will have longer workweeks. Once again, a change in capitalism billed as "for" working people will turn out to be much more "for" profits.

Another outcome is possible. It depends on whether workers and their allies in labor unions, political parties, etc., see the length of the working week and day as important objects of struggle. Reducing work times with no reduction in pay is a perfectly viable economic development strategy. It approaches development as first and foremost a problem of providing workers with significantly improved conditions for their creative labors rather than providing capitalists with higher profits. It is bottom-up stimulus (the benefits trickle up to capitalists' revenues and profits), rather than top-down stimulus (whose so-called "trickle down" benefits have the nasty habit of rarely making it down from the heights of corporate profits and stock-market booms).

Shortening the workweek with no cut in pay would also be the democratically preferred method of coping with changing global labor conditions. Capitalists, in general, could care less about that, but workers' interests are different from capitalists' as we noted above.

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