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(A Shorter Workweek in the 1980s)


Rep. John Conyers' foreword


In the sixteen years that I have served in Congress, there have been a great many proposals for solving unemployment. Some have been merely cosmetic, while others have sought to come to grips with the real, underlying causes. There has always been broad support for the goals of a full employment economy in which every individual who wanted to work could find work. Unfortunately, the strong rhetorical support in Congress for full employment never has been matched by a congressional commitment to the programs and the financial and other resources necessary to actually create a fully employed economy. Meanwhile, the unemployment situation gets worse and worse.

The failure on the part of both government and the business community to put all Americans to work has resulted in a myriad of very serious human and social problems. High crime rates, drugs, and juvenile delinquency are directly related to chronic, massive joblessness, particularly among young people in central cities. Whole communities in older industrial regions of the nation have experienced economic and financial ruin as a result of shut-down factories and long-term industrial decline. As new technologies displace labor, imports crowd out domestic production and American capital is transferred overseas to cheaper labor markets. Without income, these towns and cities lack the tax base to finance basic services such as public education. High unemployment levels also require additional billions in federal spending on unemployment compensation, food stamps, and other human service programs that are designed merely to help unemployed households survive. Unemployed workers, in addition, lose vital job skills and productive capacity and, if and when they return to work, their productivity is bound to suffer.

The fact of the matter is that the failure to create a fully employed society has amounted to one of the major public calamities of recent times. The longer individuals are kept out of work, the greater is the likelihood of growing social strains and intergroup conflict in society. There is little hope for revitalizing the nation’s economy and rebuilding our communities as long as millions of Americans remain without work. The price society as a whole is paying is intolerably high.

We now have a basic law which commits the Federal government to policies which will reduce the national unemployment rate to 4% by 1983. The Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978 poses major challenges to policymakers and citizens alike. Its implementation will require new economic ideas and bold policies. The realization of full employment also will require long-term national economic planning.

With the concept of a shorter work week, we need not plunge into uncharted waters. One of the principal means, historically, for curbing unemployment and creating new jobs was a shorter workweek. A century and a half ago, Americans workers were on the job from “sunup to sundown”. The demand for shorter hours was at the center of every major labor struggle during the first half of the 19th century, and by 1860 industrial workers won the 10-hour working day. The passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 was instrumental in curbing joblessness during the Great Depression. This experience gave rise to the central concept of the American labor movement - the need to spread work around to all who wanted jobs so that society would avoid the dangerous division between those fortunate enough to have work and the others who, through no fault of their own, were condemned to unemployment, humiliation, and despair.

The idea of “a shorter workweek in the 1980s” would revive hopes for a better life for all citizens. It also would be an appropriate response to the vast changes that already have taken place in the work force - the growing participation of women; the increasing number of multiple-earner households; the urgent need for more flexible working hours in order to make decent child care possible; and the urgent need to make greater room for young people who are entering the job market in growing numbers.

The severe decline in industrial jobs, chronic high-level unemployment, and the tendency of employers to overwork their existing employees through overtime rather than to hire new workers has led me to introduce in the 95th and each subsequent Congress the Fair Labor Standards Amendments. This legislation would reduce over a 4-year period the standard workweek from 40 to 35 hours; eliminate compulsory overtime, which now permits employers to arbitrarily schedule work without consideration for the needs of their employees; and raise the overtime rate of pay from time-and-a-half to double-time. Many industries already have adopted a shorter workweek, and this has spurred morale and productivity and prevented further loss of valuable industrial jobs. Potentially, as many as 8 million new jobs could be created through this bill by reducing working hours and unwanted overtime work. Major hearings on the shorter workweek were held in the 96th Congress. A significant, growing grass roots and labor movement in support of a reduced workweek is beginning to bear fruit, and I am confident this approach will continue to gain support in the coming years.

It is for this reason that William McGaughey’s book, A Shorter Workweek in the 1980s, is such a welcome event in the struggle to solve the unemployment crisis. His book that meets all the issues head-on and that provides a much-needed rethinking of economic policy will, I predict, generate a great deal of public attention and promote the kind of debate that Congress needs to implement the goals of the Full Employment Act.

John Conyers
Member of Congress
First Congressional District, Michigan


Note: John Conyers has now (2016) represented his Michigan constituents for more than 50 years, making him the longest-serving member of Congress. A Democrat, he is the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

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