A 32-Hour Workweek Is Ours for the Taking

Headshot of Sarah Jaffe.

About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The Progressive. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. 

This is a segment of a blog that originally appeared in full at In These Times on April 2, 2024.

The United Auto Workers won many of their demands in their groundbreaking, six-week strike in 2023, but one of them — despite not making it into their new contracts with the Big Three automakers — has the potential to radically shift organized labor’s priorities and unify an often fractious movement in ways not seen in decades. 

The demand is for a 32-hour workweek with no loss in pay. From the beginning of the strike, the audacious proposal captured public attention beyond the usual labor watchers because it upends decades-old expectations of what unions should want, signaling the working class has priorities beyond simply holding onto jobs. 

The autoworkers had struck at General Motors in 2019, but despite plenty of energy from the rank and file, a doomed leadership led a lackluster action to a contract that was half-heartedly accepted. Before that, it had been decades of concessions.

But in early 2023, democratic reforms in the union swept a new leadership team, under President Shawn Fain, into power with the slogan ​“No Corruption. No Concessions. No Tiers.” Two-tier status had been a central grievance since the UAW accepted a lower tier for new hires during rampant deindustrialization. At the time, they were told the lower tier was necessary to keep jobs at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler (now owned by Stellantis).

But the companies came screaming back to profitability, and workers on the lower tier were still making less for the same work than their more-senior colleagues. 

At that time, mass layoffs or concessions weren’t the only ideas floating around, just the ones that won out politically. Economist Dean Baker suggested in articles during the Great Recession that the government subsidize companies to shorten the workweek, spreading the work among more workers and hiring, rather than firing, during the recession. The Obama administration didn’t bite, unions largely didn’t get on board, and we got a long, slow recovery.

The Covid crisis put the issue of working time back on the table. Many ​“essential” workers — including a wide swath of manufacturing employees— worked forced overtime and risked their lives and health. Across the country and the world, they decided enough was enough.

“It really made people reflect on what’s important in life,” Fain told me in January. Workers were deciding, he said, that working 12-hour days, seven days a week, cobbling together multiple jobs to scrape by ​“is not a life.” And so the shorter hours demand made its way from grumbling workers to the UAW’s strike demands to major headlines (“Why a four-day workweek is on the table for automakers,” among so many others).

It was ​“like a bolt out of nowhere,” said Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist of work at Boston College who has researched and advocated for shorter hours for decades. ​“It legitimated [the demand] hugely.” Suddenly, New York Times editorial board member Binyamin Appelbaum was endorsing the call and urging President Joe Biden to act on it for workers across industries. ​“Americans spend too much time on the job,” Appelbaum wrote. ​“A shorter workweek would be better for our health, better for our families and better for our employers.”

An illustration of striking workers.
Source: In These Times, citing Howard Barry.

Fain told me that, initially, the UAW was ​“laughed at, basically, when we put it out there.” Ford CEO Jim Farley complained to CNN that ​“if we had done that [four-day week]. … We would have gone bankrupt many years ago. … We’d have to close plants and most people would lose their jobs.”

In other words, it’s not a complete shock that the 32-hour week was not in the contracts the union won. But Fain doesn’t see it as a mere bargaining chip. Rather, it’s the start of a long-term strategy for the union, one he hopes the rest of labor will pick up: ​“I really felt it was imperative to get the dialogue going again, to try to fight for a shorter workweek and get the public thinking along those lines.”

Work-life balance was on the autoworkers’ minds as the union prepared for bargaining — long hours, overtime (whether voluntary or forced) and the ongoing mental health crisis.

“The ability for an autoworker to provide for a family or even oneself has been more and more difficult,” Charles Mitchell, a veteran Stellantis worker in Detroit, told The Guardian. ​“All the while companies are becoming more profitable and making shareholders richer while forcing mandatory 60- to 70-hour workweeks in assembly plants.”

“Our work lives and the conditions in this nation, in this world, are what lead to a lot of these mental health issues,” Fain said. ​“Jobs should bring dignity to people.” Too many people, he said, labor constantly, with no time off for their families or friends or ​“just pursuing things that you love doing.” People lose hope, he said, when all they do is work.

When he’s talking to high school students at the union’s training center, he talks about the fact that work is a process of selling your time: ​“The greatest resource that we have on this earth is a human being’s time.” The right wing, he noted, talks about a ​“right to life” when they’re talking about abortion, but that isn’t the kind of right to life he means. ​

“That’s a right to birth. They don’t give a damn about life,” he continued. What he wants is ​“a real right to life, valuing a human being’s time, valuing their health and not just when they’re born, but after they’re born and when they get old and are too old to work, too young to die.”

Learn about workers’ rights related to wages and hours at Workplace Fairness.

The post A 32-Hour Workweek Is Ours for the Taking appeared first on Workplace Fairness.

Leave a Reply