The magic number: 32 hours
By Binyamin Appelbaum
The autoworkers picketing factories across America aren’t just seeking higher pay. They are also, audaciously, demanding the end of the standard 40-hour workweek. They want a full week’s pay for working 32 hours across four days. And we’ll all benefit if they succeed.
Americans spend too much time on the job. A shorter workweek would be better for our health, better for our families and better for our employers, who would reap the benefits of a more motivated and better-rested workforce. Other countries may seek an advantage in the global marketplace by wringing every drop of labor from their workers; American companies have to be more productive, and that means taking better care of their workers.
In 2015, the city of Gothenburg, Sweden, decided to reduce the workweek for 68 nurses at a city-owned elder-care facility. Instead of eight-hour days, the nurses worked for six hours, and the city hired 15 additional nurses to maintain the same level of staffing. As one might expect, the nurses were happier and healthier. The patients were happier and healthier, too.
A growing number of similar experiments by companies in other developed countries have yielded similar results. Working less improves the lives of workers — and it also benefits employers. Of the 61 British firms that participated in a six-month experiment with shorter workweeks last year, 56 decided to let employees continue to work less.
While unions have lost much of their power to set standards in the workplace, they can still play a useful role in pioneering changes. The United Auto Workers can establish an example for policymakers to extend to other, nonunion workers through legislation.
Politicians are a cautious bunch when it comes to labor disputes, but President Joe Biden hasn’t hesitated to pick a side in the fight between the United Auto Workers and the “Big Three” automakers. On Tuesday, after joining General Motors workers on the picket line in Belleville, Michigan, he was asked whether they deserved a 40% raise. He said yes.
Biden ought to be equally vocal in supporting the shift to a 32-hour workweek — and not just for those in the auto industry. He ought to back federal legislation redefining the standard week for all hourly workers. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced a 32-hour bill earlier this year. As Takano has noted, changing the law is particularly important to help blue-collar workers, generally subject to more rigid workplace rules.
Though the 40-hour week may feel like an immutable law of nature, it’s barely a century old.
American workers fought to establish the eight-hour workday around the turn of the last century, campaigning on the catchy slogan, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will.” But the workweek then was six days long for almost everyone.
In 1922, when Ford became one of the first major employers to commit to a five-day workweek, the announcement made the front page of this newspaper.
“Every man needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation,” said Edsel Ford, the company’s president at the time. “The Ford Company has always sought to promote ideal home life for its employees. We believe that in order to live properly, every man should have more time to spend with his family.”
It took until 1940 for Congress to legislate a 40-hour week. The law said that hourly employees who worked longer got overtime pay.
The union movement back then had an even shorter week high on its list of priorities. In 1933, the Senate passed a bill establishing a 30-hour standard as part of the great rush of legislation at the beginning of President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. But it went no further, and the 40-hour week soon became conventional.
The revival of the idea partly reflects a shift in societal priorities. Americans have become more protective of their health, more inclined to define themselves in terms of their lives outside work — and perhaps more willing to accept leisure as a substitute for higher pay.
Also, there is less work to go around. In a famous 1930 essay, British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030, people would work only 15 hours a week because technological progress would reduce the amount of labor required to meet people’s wants and needs. Keynes greatly underestimated both the will to work and the human capacity to want more stuff. But he wasn’t entirely wrong. The share of Americans who work has been in decline for decades, and while workers still log long hours, the reality of many jobs is better captured by “The Office” than, say, “The Jungle.”
People need time for rest and “what you will,” but they still need jobs, too. Work is not just a source of income; it is an essential part of what it means to be human. A shorter workweek would distribute the available opportunities among more people. At the moment, with unemployment low and many employers struggling to find enough workers, that may not seem like an advantage. But as technological progress continues to reduce or eliminate some kinds of work, it makes sense to share what is left.
It would be fitting for Ford and its workers to once again take the first step into the future.