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SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT WORK TIME AND A PROPOSAL TO CUT IT

by William McGaughey

 

The current 40-hour standard workweek under the Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect in 1940. In the years since 1947 (when such statistics began to be collected regularly), the average workweek dropped from 43.5 hours to 38.6 hours - a decline of 4.9 hours. In the 70 years before 1940 the average workweek went from 65.4 hours to 44.0 hours - a decline of 21.4 hours per week. What has happened? Something is awry.

We do not even talk about shorter workweeks any more. The labor movement, now diminished in numbers, has been distracted from its traditional goal of cutting work time. In other words, the institutional support for shorter hours is no longer there. Yet, the economic need persists. Why is that?

Since the late 1940s, labor productivity has increased by five times. This means, essentially, that a given group of workers can produce five times as much output in an hour of work; or, alternatively, the same quantity of output in one fifth the time, affording more leisure. We have gone in the direction of increased output, but all is not as it seems.

What has happened is that “output” has grown statistically while working hours have remained the same. But what kind of output? Are we Americans producing more food, more clothing, or other wanted and useful products? Are we, in fact, more prosperous?

No, something else is taking place. Employment in agriculture has fallen from 40.2% of the labor force in 1900 to 1.6% of the work force in 2010. Employment in manufacturing fell from 20.3% of the work force in 1900 to 10.1% in 2010. Industries that now claim the bulk of U.S. employment include government services (16.1%), health-care services (13.6%), business and professional services (11.0%), educational services (9.5%), and hospitality services (9.0%). Does this make sense to you? Not to me.

I would invite you to consider alternatives. Instead of being a crime-and-punishment type of society, a militarily oriented society, an overeducated and overmedicated society, or a society given to gambling, could we not turn over some of the time resources consumed by those enterprises to the man or woman who works in useful occupations in the form of reduced working hours? Not only would this directly improve people’s lives, it would shrink the supply of labor creating upward pressure on wages.

America used to be a leader in reducing work time. The May Day labor holiday began with a general strike for the 8-hour day that took place in the United States and Canada in 1886. Its success led to other strikes and actions not only in our country but around the world. May Day does not have to be a communist holiday or one given to pagan celebrations but it can be a spring-time event associated with shorter work hours.

We Americans can do it again. We can be bold pioneers in creating a type of society and life that truly benefits people. I would invite you to join such an enterprise. Specifically, I would invite you to support the establishment of a 4-day, 32-hour workweek through amendment of the Fair Labor Standards Act. That will not happen because the President or some people in Congress think it is a good idea but because there is demonstrated public support for such a change The purpose of this letter is to arouse and expand that support.

Admittedly, there is much misinformation about this issue. Some think only lazy people want leisure. It is said that the average American would not know what to do if he or she had more free time. The default position for politicians is for you to keep working many hours and earning taxable income from this to support their various projects.

Apply the concept to yourself. Would you know what to do if you had more free time? Would you know how to spend your time productively or do you need government or business leaders, sociologists or economists, to decide what you should be doing?

We can only be effective in being organized; and for that, we need numbers of people focused upon a common end. And, since such an organization does not yet exist, we must try to create one.

To build a movement for shorter work hours, we are seeking to identify potential supporters through a direct-mail campaign. This is a one-time campaign which will either succeed or fail depending upon the response rate from the mailing. A minimal financial contribution is requested - more if you feel so inclined.

If donations equal or exceed the cost of the mailing, all monies received will be poured into another mailing to reach still more people; and so, in successive rounds of mailings, the list of supporters will grow. On the other hand, if the donations fall short of replenishing the mailing cost, then the campaign will eventually end. It will not be possible to mount a successful campaign to shorten the workweek unless a healthy number of people not previously involved explicitly support the proposal.

If you fill out the enclosed form and return it to us, you will receive a progress report in four months that will also solicit your reaction and advice. Frankly, this is a one-time opportunity since nothing else of the sort is available or is likely to appear. Big ideas have long been out of favor.

With your help, we can pull this off. Since you do not yet know us, only a modest commitment is requested. However, if the mailing campaign is successful, it would then become possible to organize both nationally and locally to achieve the historic transformation of work that the American people want and deserve.

So please respond to this mailing as you think reductions in required work time might affect your own life and the lives of your descendants in future generations.

21st Century Campaign to Cut the Workweek, P.O. Box xxxx, Minneapolis, MN 55403

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