A shorter work week?

Microsoft recently granted its workers in Japan five Friday’s off in a row, resulting in a 40% productivity jump. Similar recent experiments have resulted in healthier, happier more efficient workers. 

Around the world the idea of reducing working hours is a topic of debate and discussion once more.

The first major victory that achieved an 8-hour working day, with no loss of pay, was won in Melbourne by building workers in 1856. Prior to that 10 and 12-hour working days were normal.

But the working week was still 6 days long, 48 hours a week. From that time on there were many campaigns across industries to further reduce the amount of time people were forced to spend at work.

It wasn’t until 1928 that an 8-hour day, 6-day week was established in national law, and it was another 20 years before a 5-day week was achieved.

All of these achievements were won through organising and campaigning. The strongest action was taken ‘on the job’.

But since then the 8-hour day has been eroded for many. Lots of workers now do very long and unhealthy hours. Others struggle to get enough hours to pay the bills, or even to get a job at all.

The struggle for shorter hours has been stalled since the 1970s. The decline of union membership because of poor leadership of the workers movement in recent decades is the reason.

Bosses are always scheming to make us work harder, for longer, for less. They say we need a rise in productivity to do less work. But the truth is worker productivity has increased an enormous amount over the last decades.

Technology and efficiency have increased dramatically since there was any real reduction in standard working hours.

In fact, human labour has never been so productive in all of history. The problem is that the overwhelming bulk of the ‘productivity gains’ have turned into fat CEO bonuses and turbo-charged corporate profits.

In 1930 the famous economist John Keynes predicted that a 15-hour work week would be standard by now.

Metal workers in Melbourne regularly occupied the intersection outside Flinders Street Station on Friday nights in the 1970s. They were protesting for a 35-hour working week. They believed that microchips, computers and robotics would lay the basis.

Scary stories from bosses allege less time working would mean higher unemployment or even economic catastrophe.

Whenever workers ask for anything you can expect to hear these kinds of doom and gloom predictions from the honest, responsible corporate captains of Australia.

Really the question is how we divide the up the wealth and the benefits that are produced by the collective efforts of all working people in society?

Reducing working hours without reducing pay means that workers would keep more of the wealth we produce. That means cutting into corporate profits. No wonder the bosses are opposed!

Instead of more luxury cars, mansions and yachts for the 1%, we want society’s wealth used to provide more time for leisure, health and community.

A shorter working week without loss of pay would also mean that more people could be employed to take up any slack left over.

There are millions of workers in Australia living from one pay day to the next, who want to work more to earn more. There are more people again who are unemployed.

Both these problems could be addressed right away by shortening the working week and sharing out the available work.

That’s why Socialist Action calls for a 35-hour week with no loss of pay, as an immediate step toward reducing working time further.

Building workers in 1856 won a 25% pay rise combined with a 20% cut in their working hours all at once. They didn’t have the benefits of the communication technology we have today, or as much time outside work to organise.

It’s possible to revive those traditions and have big wins like that today. What’s required is to rebuild determined working class organisations with socialist ideas and bold leadership. We have to reject the arguments of the bosses and the logic of the profit driven system.

Capitalists say they can’t afford shorter working hours. We respond that working class people can’t afford their profit-driven system. We need a society that puts the needs of the majority above the profits of the 1%. We need a democratic socialist society.

By Kirk Leonard

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