An increasing number of labor activists, both here in the US as well as in Europe, have been raising demands for a shorter work week. The growing globalization of production and use of automation have led to a decline in higher wage manufacturing jobs and an increase in lower wage service employment. Cutting the work week without loss of pay, theoretically long espoused by unions, is seen as a way of increasing employment. There are strong reasons why environmentalists should also support this idea.
Consumerism is both an integral component of late capitalist society and an unquestionable contributor to environmental degradation. We are constantly bombarded by advertisements telling us to consume ever more products. Slick packaging tempts us to buy newer items. Planned obsolescence ensures that the commodities we buy will need replacing after a few years. Ever changing fashions and fads compel us to buy whatever is currently stylish or trendy. "Fast" foods, disposable products, easy to cook micro-wavable dinners all claim to make our busy lives more manageable. The result is tons of waste and garbage for landfills, increased use of non-renewable resources, more pollution and greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
To demand shorter work weeks is to proclaim that life is more than the production and consumption of commodities.
Since this is a capitalist society, these products are certainly not given away. They are produced as commodities to be sold on the market. The profits enrich the class which legally owns the means of production. In order to buy these products the workers (i.e., all those who must sell their labor power in order to survive rather than owning or managing enterprises) must have as much money as possible. This of course means working as many hours as possible. Mandatory overtime and requirements connected with eligibility for health care benefits limit workers' ability to choose their hours, as well as illustrating the importance owners place on long hours in the manufacturing and service sectors.
When workers begin to demand shorter hours, to have greater control of the time spent at work, they are taking a step toward breaking the productivist/consumerist mentality integral to postmodern capitalism. The workers then begin to say "No!" to the very process that leads to environmental degradation. To demand shorter work weeks is to proclaim that life is more than the production and consumption of commodities.
The connection between shorter working hours and the creation of a more ecologically harmonious society is fundamental. As Andre Gorz, a French labor theoretician, points out:The ecological restructuring of society demands that economic rationality be subordinated to an eco-social rationality. That subordination is incompatible with the capitalist paradigm of maximization of productivity and profit. It is also incompatible with a market economy which forces competing enterprises into constant innovation and differentiation, into continually creating new desires and proposing satisfaction of those desires by raising consumption to as high a level as possible, into putting obstacles in the way of that self limitation of needs which would be the effect of production for oneself and the free choice of working hours. (1)
Of course shorter hours by themselves will not be enough to transform our society, but it is one of a number of demands necessary for that transformation. Providing a guaranteed income will also be essential for coping with the social and economic changes coming over the next century. With the trend towards the creation of more lower paying service jobs this will become necessary for maintaining a decent standard of living for those working for lower wages (often referred to as the "working poor") Such a measure is also important for supporting workers who are in between periods of employment. Some economists have calculated that giving a guaranteed income to every individual would actually be cheaper than welfare with all its administrative costs (not to mention the hassle and degradation inflicted on its recipients). Those making above a minimum amount would pay taxes while those making below that amount would receive payments from the government. When coupled with a reduction in working hours this will create a situation where everyone can work, but will work shorter hours.
Beyond this is the need for public ownership of the means of production and workers' self-management, without which the ecologically destructive aspects of capitalist rationality cannot be overcome. Cutting working hours as much as possible could be a vital first step in this direction. The "planned abolition of work" as Antonio Negri puts it, can lead to the transformation of work itself. "Work is no longer work, it is work that is liberated from work" (2). A shorter work week is important as a measure to create a more democratic and environmentally conscious society.
1. Andre Gorz; Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology. Verso Books, 1994, p 12.
2. Antonio Negri, Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse, Autonomedia, 1991, p 160