Synthesis/Regeneration 12   (Winter 1997)

Toxic Challenge

Is Shorter Work Time an Option for American Labor?

by Jerry Tucker, Director, New Directions Worker Education Center, Former Internat'l UAW Executive Board Member

Over 100 years ago the fight for the eight-hour day began in America. It took more than 50 years, numerous strikes, deaths, and several incarnations of the U.S. labor movement to bring it about. In the 1930s, shortening work time from 40 to 30 hours per week was initially high on the depression-driven, class-conscious agenda of labor activists. This core demand, both as public policy and as a bargaining objective, did not survive attacks by big business, neglect by lawmakers, a collision with World War II (WW II) mobilization, and the postwar divisions within the labor movement.

Following WW II and the emergence of "business unionism" -- highlighted by the so-called "Treaty of Detroit," which placed unionism in the context of capitalism's growth and our nation's prosperity -- the fight to radically reduce work time faded and died. The objective was noted without passion and only in the lip-service resolutions of some unions' convention proceedings; shorter work time has not been on the agenda of the national AFL-CIO, or any major affiliates, for over 30 years. The last U.S. union to reduce work time in any appreciable way was my own, the United Auto Workers (UAW), which in 1979, through collective agreements with the Big-Three auto makers, secured nine annual paid absence days. These paid days off were conceded back to the companies in the concessionary bargaining rounds of 1982. No significant attempt to recover them has been made by the UAW to date.

A few facts on current U.S. work time

The reality is that U.S. workers are working harder and falling further behind. It's a myth that workers want more hours! They want fewer hours, but more income.

Several recent examples

Flint GM workers strike against speed-up and overtime. In 1995, with the average work week reaching 58 hours for workers at the General Motors Buick City facility in Flint, local union leaders staged a dramatic strike to reduce work time and create employment opportunities for hundreds of unemployed workers. The giant auto company was forced to hire over 700 workers, reduce assembly line speed-ups, and maintain a safer work environment.

Chrysler mini-van plant adopts three-shift, 6-hour-50-minute-day work schedule. At the St. Louis Chrysler's minivan assembly plant in the early 1990s, high sales demand prompted the company to look for ways to expand plant production capacity. The plant was already operating with the traditional two-shift schedule and forcing workers to work 10-, sometimes even 11-hour days, and Saturdays. Management proposed to have three crews working four 10-hour days (at straight-time pay), which would add approximately 1,000 new workers. Rank and file activists within the local union countered with a proposal for a standard work week with three shifts working 7-hour days (at 8 hours pay). The issue was put to the union membership for a vote. The shorter work time (three-shift, 7-hour day) proposal won overwhelmingly. This resulted in the addition of more than 1,300 workers at the plant.

St. Louis IBEW Local #1 strikes to share work time. In response to construction industry layoffs in 1994, St. Louis electrical workers conducted a strike to reduce the work time of union members currently employed to 32 hours (at 32 hours pay) so that unemployed members could be re-employed.

Work schedules have become employer weapons

On the reverse side, the recent, well-publicized labor struggles at A. E. Staley and Bridgestone Firestone Corporation were centered on work time questions-and the workers lost. In each case, management of these multinational corporations imposed 12-hour straight time work days on workers, and the U.S. labor movement, despite lengthy job actions and boycotts, failed to alter the situation. Today's relentless employer attacks on workers feature not only work time and schedule abuses, but wage stagnation, downsizing, whipsawing, subcontracting, part-time and temp employment, and privatization. Global capital's "lean production" agenda is producing higher profits, runaway executive compensation, and worker misery and insecurity on an unprecedented scale.

U.S. labor, having invested in a false partnership with increasingly hostile employers, is being battered by today's right-wing, market-oriented social and economic public policy onslaught. Labor is far removed from a concerted, all-out effort to rejoin the struggle to radically reduce work time and create jobs and leisure time for American workers. At this time no major U.S. union is committed to reducing work time as its primary bargaining or public policy objective.

But an example of the potential impact of such an effort can be seen in a 1988 UAW study. It determined that if the Big-Three automakers were forced to produce on a 40-hour week, rather than with the current huge overtime schedules, they would have to hire or recall 88,000 additional workers to meet demand. Coupled with appropriate, productivity-based hourly wage increases, the positive consumption relationship to "growing the economy" would be significant.

The struggle for shorter work time in historical context

The fight for shorter work time must be a key element in the rebirth of the U.S. labor movement, not only because of the issue's value in the pursuit of an autonomous, noncorporate, pro-worker and pro-community agenda, but because, for labor, survival within the new world order of global capital means a new form of international solidarity and a new global unionism.

Our failure to restructure U.S. unionism and reconfigure our ideological response to global capital in coordination with labor in other nations, where shorter work time is a central demand, would betray our own collective self-interest. The means for international labor to arrive at a point of power in relation to global capital is "pattern" or, at minimum, coordinated bargaining. In my view, the U.S. labor movement has no choice but to effect its own internal reorganization in a way that renews the fight for social wages through guaranteed incomes, national health care, stringent environmental protections, and public policy that reduces work time.

A reborn labor movement must engage in independent political action,and unprecedented coalition building, based on a new level of internal democracy and accountability.

After so many years of dependency on wayward politicians, mainly Democrats, U.S. unionists are making stutter-steps toward an independent agenda. The current emphasis on organizing the unorganized is an important first step. What must accompany it is a new emphasis on building a social movement and the creation of a new agenda based on justice and industrial democracy. The struggle to reduce work time and redistribute wealth must be an integral part of this resurgence. All component parts of a new social agenda must be strategically joined. National labor can hammer home the social worth of reducing work time-while increasing incomes and leisure time-but the trench fights will fall to the sectoral affiliates and the local union rank and file. Breakthroughs must be won in key economic sectors even as policy advocates make the case for a public resolution.

Take again, for example, the auto industry. Perhaps no industry provides as compelling a model for redirecting labor's global energies. Auto and related vehicle production is as central to the world's industrial makeup today as it has been for most of the current century. Close coordination between auto sector unions in the principal auto producing countries could take on a new economic significance. New concepts of industrial democracy made manageable by greater initial coordination in the three predominant industrial regions--North America, Europe, and the Asian Rim--could be forged. Shorter work time is already on the agenda of virtually all European auto unionists (who have had some success) and is now a demand of Japanese auto workers. It is clearly an objective of the progressive Canadian Auto Workers, whose victories over the Big-Three in the reduction of work time place them out in front of their U.S. and Mexican auto union comrades.

Canadian auto workers at Ford, for instance, enjoy 52 hours (or 6.5 days) more paid time off per year than U.S. Ford workers, and receive 4 weeks of vacation at the end of 15 years of service, as compared with 3 weeks for U.S. workers. The Canadian workers at Ford also enjoy more break time per work day than their U.S. counterparts-56 minutes vs. 46 minutes.

A fundamental first step in this direction would be to move ahead with the suggestion made by the new UAW President Stephen Yokich that "we need a North American Auto Workers Federation." Such a formation, democratically organized and untrammeled by the employer ideology of "competitiveness" that drives the lean production workplace organization of today, could, with concerted action, create a new beachhead for a shorter work day and increase both leisure time and employment opportunities in North America.

For U.S. labor generally to understand, acknowledge, and respond to the realities facing workers and communities today, the current labor leadership will have to do an about-face. The recent political contest and debate on direction in the AFL-CIO may have opened the door a crack, but something much more fundamental will have to occur before, to paraphrase new AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, "Labor can become relevant" again to American workers.

A reborn labor movement will not stop with the demand for a shorter work day. It will also press for full employment, national health care, new transportation and housing policies, and environmental responsibility, and will advance numerous social and economic initiatives for radical redistribution of wealth and power that can realign our society along democratic lines.

This also means that labor must engage in independent political action and unprecedented coalition building based on a new level of internal democracy and accountability. America needs a progressive, labor-driven economic agenda, but that can only come as part of a larger social movement in this country and worldwide.

A version of this article was presented by Jerry Tucker at the "Our Time Famine" Conference at the University of Iowa on March 9, 1996.

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