It’s time to shorten the workday—and the workweek
It's time for a shorter workday and workweek. | AP

It’s been nearly a year since the COVID-19 pandemic forced people in our society to “shelter in place,” social distance, and wear masks. Most social activities, such as sporting events, concerts, and parades were canceled. Schools and businesses closed, forcing nearly 50 million people onto the unemployment rolls.

And while in recent months the numbers have improved, the federal government reported that in January 2021 the “official” unemployment rate was 6.3%, or more than ten million people still jobless. These figures, however, hide the real totals. By some estimates, the real unemployment rate is 11.%, including more than 18 million workers. This number reflects those marginally employed—those stuck with only part-time hours and under-employed.

At this rate, unemployment will remain a long-term problem, a social problem that has dangerous implications for the working class, as well as the nation as a whole. President Biden has proposed his American Rescue Plan, which would provide, among other things, stimulus checks for millions of Americans and an extension of unemployment insurance. And though it’s not in the bill, the rounds of stimulus have sparked increased interest in the introduction of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) that would provide a monthly check to all Americans as a right.

While these are important proposals, there is another approach to help solve the unemployment problem that has not been discussed, one that will alleviate the short-term problem while achieving a long-time demand of the working class—reducing the workday and the workweek with no reduction in pay.

For decades, people have accepted the eight-hour day/five-day week (with the weekend a by-product) as a given, as if it is enshrined in some basic holy text. But it is not. This basic fact of our lives came about because of struggles by workers and their allies that stretch back two centuries.

In the period before the Civil War, it was not uncommon for workers to labor for 12 or more hours a day, usually six (and sometimes seven) days a week. As workers became aware of their growing strength in numbers, they began to organize and demand, among other things, shorter hours.

Hence, the Ten-Hour Movement was born. Led by groups such as the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (women who worked in the textile mills of Lowell, Mass.) and a wide coalition of workers in Philadelphia, they went on strike and pushed for legislation to codify their goals. Slowly, states began to adopt the ten-hour day. In 1840, the federal government required it for all public works projects.

After the Civil War, labor began to demand the introduction of the eight-hour day. The Knights of Labor, a pioneering workers organization in the late nineteenth century, became one of its lead advocates. Organized around the slogan, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will,” workers across the country took up the cause.

The movement reached a dramatic moment at the Haymarket Square in Chicago between May 1-4, 1886. On May 1, more than 35,000 workers went on strike amidst a wave of rallies and demonstrations. On the evening of May 4, at a protest at Haymarket Square against police violence, someone threw a bomb that killed eight officers and a number of protesters. In the end, eight radicals (called “anarchists”) were put on trial, and in November four were hanged. This incident led to socialists around the world to declare May 1 an international workers holiday, May Day.

The eight-hour movement gained success in 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in the midst of the Great Depression. This law established the eight-hour day and five-day week, overtime, created the minimum wage, and outlawed child labor for all workers in the public and private sectors.

This law was passed over 80 years ago, but its basic hours provisions remain largely unchanged. An added irony is that many workers work considerably more than 40 hours a week, with 40% of the workforce engaged in labor more than fifty hours a week.

It is time to amend the law. There are two goals to aim for, either: A.) the 30-hour week (five-days, six hours); or B.) the 32-hour week (four days, eight hours). Either choice would be a vast improvement over what exists currently.

In the 1950s and ’60s, there was much discussion among workers and their unions about reducing the hours people spent at work, but over the ensuing decades, the issue faded into the background. The AFL-CIO has always supported the demand, and now would be a good time to bring it back to the forefront.

One need not tell workers the benefits: less stress, better health, more time to rest and pursue hobbies or spend time with families, not to mention the increase in productivity—something the bosses would like. Sweden has experimented with the 30-hour week, especially for nurses, and to say the least, the workers universally liked it. (An interesting note: In Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin has suggested a four-day/six-hour week. She has not formally proposed it, however, but that would be quite an advance.)

The bottom line is that there is no reason other than private profit to maintain the five-day/eight-hour week. Think of all the workers who would need to be hired to fill in for all the hours not being worked. At a time of severe economic dislocation, the idea of reducing the workweek is one whose time has arrived.


David Cavendish
David Cavendish

David Cavendish is a retired teacher, active in the union movement, the peace movement (many years in an anti-Iraq/Afghanistan War vigil), and other progressive political activities. He is a longtime contributor to People’s World. David Cavendish es un maestro jubilado, activo en el movimiento sindical, el movimiento por la paz y otras actividades políticas progresistas. Colabora desde hace mucho tiempo en People’s World.