Why We Should Demand a Shorter Workweek

I.W.W. Poster 

By Dustin Guastella

If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist. - K. Marx

Recently a Chicago firm made headlines when it was revealed that they allowed their workers less than six minutes a day in the bathroom. Naturally, people were outraged, but this is an old story; capital and labor have been fighting over working time since the earliest pangs of the bourgeois revolutions. In 1750, Philadelphian carpenters demanded a ten-hour day; by 1866 the International Working Men’s Association declared the fight for an eight-hour day its top priority; that same year, across the pond, many in the American labor movement did the same. And by 1937, the demand for a shorter workday was largely met with the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Fast-forward 77 years and we are still appalled by capital’s insistence on limiting the free time of workers. What is it about capitalism (and capitalists) that insists on controlling every minute of the worker’s day? Despite numerous appeals by liberal economists who argue that shorter working hours and longer lunch breaks will lead to boosts in productivity, and despite immense capital accumulation and productivity growth, the American working day has not taken a serious hit since the early 20th century.

There is something about workers having free time that is deeply unsettling to employers and threatening to capital. Today, proletarianized white-collar workers are required to work 50-60 hours a week. Low-wage workers in service, retail and hospitality industries are expected to work similarly long hours spread across two or three jobs. All this occurs during a period where capitalism enjoys healthy growth rates, while capitalists enjoy tremendous gains and the income/wealth gap steadily swells. Further, productivity is up and the unemployment rate stubbornly shrinks (although we wait with bated breath to hear the Bureau of Labor Statistics tell us that six percent unemployment is the new normal).

Shorter workweeks are certainly possible even under neoliberal capitalism. Labor economists have looked at the relationship between productivity and hours and found that workers’ demands for more free time are not antithetical to capital’s demand to “valorize itself,” as Marx puts it. In fact, if implemented creatively, shorter workweeks could even ease the burden of unemployment while boosting productivity.

The mainstream commentariat often talk about the virtues of capitalism and technology to fix social problems (who needs politics anyway?). When it comes to the workweek we learn that as technology advances we are bound for a flexible work-play future where working hours will naturally decrease as productivity soars, work itself will be easy, fun and enjoyable and our non-work lives will be presumably as satisfying.

If we overlook the paternalistic and technocratic ways in which Google and the silicon valley cohort plan on leading us into the bean-bag office of our dreams these messages are still profoundly inaccurate in that throughout the entire period of what is called the “information revolution” we have not seen work become more fulfilling or less time-consuming: the 40-hour week is fast deteriorating for white-collar workers in unique and often subliminal ways and “flexibility” has ensured that all workers are always unofficially on-call. And while low-wage workers object to having too few hours, their free time is even more tenuous as they are only made aware of their schedules days in advance and are expected to fill in for no-shows at a moment’s notice. It seems Andre Gorz was correct in observing that capitalism “has no room for authentically free time.”

As technology has boosted productivity into astronomic levels, we have not seen any shortening of the workweek or even a relaxing of the lunch break in fact we have seen just the opposite. This, I think, suggests that the length of the workweek was never about productivity or capital accumulation. It was and is about social control.

The likelihood that our Chicago-based employer was genuinely interested in boosting worker productivity (and thus profit margins) by shortening the bathroom time of workers is slim. More likely was the employer’s contempt for workers having discretionary time, during which they were being paid, to take care of their own necessary biological functions.

This contempt does not necessarily stem from employers’ hatred of workers as people (although this may often be the case), instead it is born out of the relationship between the employers and the labor they are purchasing. Once the employer or capitalist buys labor power through wages, they expect to have all of it regardless of productivity or biological needs. Similarly, if the capitalists’ sports car had to spend 15 minutes a day peeing and several hours eating they would be equally conniving in thinking of ways to dominate all the time they could out of that car regardless of whether they need it. This relationship between employer and employed is an important aspect often missing from the debate about work hours. Even Keynesians (and Keynes himself) tend to overstate capitalists’ drive for higher productivity and maximization of profit; they claim it is irrational, anti-productive and cruel for employers to dictate and supervise employees every minute.

But employers aren’t totally irrational, many do recognize how vital free time is for workers to organize, as David Harvey observes: “[A]llowing free time for more and more individuals to pursue their own objectives of self-realization is terrifying for the prospects for capital’s secure control over labor” (Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, p. 274). It is important to think, as socialists, how much more we could do for our movement if we had 20 extra hours a week or more. How much more organizing could fast-food workers do if they knew their schedules two weeks in advance and could coordinate shift walkouts with significant notice? We are usually so overworked, or constantly worrying about when we will work next, that we really have very little time to fight back or even to enjoy ourselves.

It seems to me that fighting for a shorter workweek presents a fundamental challenge to the structure of work in a way that a demand for higher-wages (alone) does not. While higher wages are often the primary demand of low-wage workers and Keynesian economists identify the need to generate greater demand, a higher-wage platform decoupled from a demand for greater freedom at work and from work unavoidably contributes to ever-more alienated and mindless consumption while ultimately leading to the reproduction of capitalism and the requisite social logic. However, demands that shatter the illusion of scarcity (in this case scarcity of time) and contribute to a rethinking of human social life by revaluing the time not spent working are, I think, key to engendering an anti-hegemonic common sense.

Capitalists have always had an interest in controlling the free movement and time of workers and citizens; they have developed elaborate schemes for maximizing worker efficiency and limiting the little downtime many have at work. Today, they are succeeding at making us work at home and forcing us to accept an ever-changing work schedule as normal and even desirable. Despite the rhetoric of 'inevitable improvements' to our working lives through the gifts of beneficent technocrats, we know that the only way workers have ever won significant gains is through organizing and disruption.

We should not only demand a drastically shorter workweek and higher wages but also regulation to end “flexibility” and our “freedom” to never stop working, in order to develop a way of really enjoying and exercising what little time we have to ourselves away from the oppressive and anti-democratic organizations (also known as workplaces) within which we spend much of our lives. Further, such demands cut across workplaces and industries and are widely appealing. They also succeed in genuinely challenging the social power of capital. And, if such efforts are successful they leave many of us free to organize and demand even more.

Dustin Guastella is a member of Philadelpia DSA.

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