Public Values

Workers of the World Relax: May 1 reminds us why we need a shorter workweek

Reduced workweek combats poverty, increases employment, author says.

Author Conrad Schmidt argues a higher quality of life for all would come with a shorter work weekby Conrad Schmidt

This article was taken from Chapter 13 of Conrad Schmidt's book: Workers of the World Relax: The Simple Economics of Less Industrial Work:

It is ludicrous that in today's ragged-eared rat race with millions working well beyond any sane number of hours, we also have millions of people in line at soup kitchens, unable to find any value for their labour. Some are working themselves to the bone, while others are struggling to find any worthwhile purpose. Decreasing unemployment has to address both sides of this imbalance.

It seems ironic that working less is a big part of the solution to problems of over and under-employment. When I became an advocate of a reduced workweek, I found myself quite regularly accosted in street arguments, lectured by angry left-wing activists accusing me of a bourgeois philosophy, which would only financially benefit the rich and serve to impoverish the poor even more. Provided I was allowed more than two minutes to reply, arguments would clarify themselves. The struggle for a reduced workweek has been central to addressing unemployment in many countries across the world, even in Canada and the United States.

It was not long ago that a reduced workweek was the central issue of the labour movement. May Day is testimony and a reminder of the movements' struggle to reduce the workweek. On May 1, 1886, labour unions organized a strike for an eight-hour workday in Chicago. On May 3rd, striking workers met near the Cyrus McCormick reaper plant where Chicago police attacked strikers without warning, killing two, wounding several others and sparking outrage in the city's working community.

Many countries, including our own, have in the past decreased the workweek for the very purpose of combating poverty and increasing employment. In 1933, the United States congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which reduced the workday from ten to eight hours. This act was passed to bolster economic recovery following the Great Depression. This reduction was part of a successful series of economic reforms that decreased unemployment, increased minimum wage and improved standard of living. Due to similar initiatives, it was common by 1950 for a single income family to be able to afford a home, education and many other items that we would now regard as impossible with anything less than two incomes.

The reason why a reduction in work hours reduces unemployment is simple. If everyone works less it means there is more work to go around and consequently, unemployment decreases.

There is a relatively fixed useful amount of industrial labour that can be done in an economy: there are only so many pizzas that can be eaten, television sets that can be watched, and books that can be read. I am not saying that it is impossible to increase the amount of labour needed by extending working hours, but that there is a relatively inelastic ceiling on valuable labour. In addition to an inelastic consumer-based ceiling on industrial labour, there is an absolute environmental ceiling. The amount of direct damage caused by industrial labour exceeds the benefits. The solution to decreasing unemployment is not forcing people to work harder, but sharing the workload so that more are employed.

In addition to increasing employment, a reduced workweek also helps increase minimum wage and wages overall. There are two reasons for this. As people in middle to upper income brackets work less, more opportunities to move up the income scale will present themselves. Not only will people have the potential to earn more, less people will compete for minimum wage jobs. This will also help inflate wages. In reality, if we work less, the value of our labour increases along with wage negotiating powers...

Due to the dynamic correlation between political, environmental and economic factors, unemployment statistics fluctuate. In the United States, the highest unemployment figures of the 20th century were recorded during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the lowest were recorded in 1953 at 2.9 percent.

As they have fluctuated in the past, they will continue to do so in the future. The fragile nature of our biosphere limits the amount of industrial labour. Commitments to sustainability, such as in the Kyoto Protocol and hard limits set by the environment, will restrict potential growth and, as a result, employment. The last one hundred years of pro-industrial growth strategies are not feasible policies to deal with the environmental crises of the 21st century.

Conrad Schmidt is a writer and film maker living in Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of Workers of the World Relax: the simple economics of less industrial work. He is also the director of Five Ring Circus: the true costs of the Vancouver Olympic Games.

Links and sources
  Workers of the World Relax website

Posted: April 29, 2009

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