The 4-Day Work Week: Pipe Dream Or Fighting Demand?

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During the pandemic, millions of people found themselves working from home, making their own schedules, and even scheduling in time for leisure. Millions of others were laid off and were, for a brief time, able to live comfortably off of increased unemployment benefits.

For many people, for the first time ever, there was time for baking bread, TikTok dancing, gardening, and bird watching. While trying to avoid spreading a deadly airborne virus, “doing our part” meant, for millions, spending time with the people they loved. It was the first time millions of workers in the US had had significant time off. 

And despite working from home and taking more time off – productivity stayed even. We all saw that productivity during COVID-19 did not go down, despite so many people working from home. This has contributed to the buzz around a four-day work week getting louder in the last few years. 

Some bosses are beginning to champion this, though of course – like Ford in the ‘20s – they will only be motivated to carry out such a move on their terms.

Now, workers are excited about working fewer days without a loss in pay and some are also questioning the “need” to go into the office every day. The call for a shorter work week is currently focused on office-based workers, but should be widened out to include all workers. 

On average, US workers work longer hours and get less time off – for vacationing or even being sick – than their counterparts in other advanced capitalist countries. And what does working more and resting less mean for us? American workers face high stress levels, less sleep, and an increased risk of early death. The bosses want to work us ‘til we’re dead. And that’s been the case for a while.

Like the Weekend? Thank the Labor Movement

Before unions and government regulation, workers literally worked until they died and were paid so poorly that a work week was often 70 hours a week. The labor movement fought for and won a transformation in the workday. They won eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for ourselves. That was back in 1866.

In 1926, union-hater Henry Ford introduced a five-day work week for his factory workers. While shrouded in pretty language about working people deserving more than one day off per week, Ford implemented this change in order to enforce even more intense productivity requirements on workers during their five working days. He also admitted to taking this step so that his workers would spend more money on their days off. 

But Ford’s cynical maneuver became a certain inspiration for an increasingly militant labor movement to demand the five-day work week be institutionalized. By the ‘30s, there were massive union battles over pay and hours, culminating in the regulation of a 40-hour work week. It’s unions that have long argued for shorter work weeks and for employers to pay the price in steep overtime rates if they want us to work beyond 40 hours.

Taking The Next Step

That brings us to now. Even before the pandemic, the “startup ethos” in tech put all workers on salary, and in sectors like education and nonprofits, the expectation of 40 hours a week was long gone. The “gig economy,” a global pandemic, and increased inflation without increases in the minimum wage have blurred those lines the labor movement drew in the sand decades ago.  

Though it may seem counterintuitive, some bosses are increasingly intrigued by the idea of a four-day work week, particularly for office workers, because it means they can squeeze more out of their employees during working hours while reducing overhead expenses of office space, electricity, and maintenance services. According to US News & World Report, “By shifting to a four-day work week, employers could save up to 20% on those expenditure items and use the funds in other business areas.”

Socialists believe the bosses are more than capable of accommodating a four-day work week with no loss in pay for workers and no increase in hours worked per day. This is very different from the bosses’ conception of a four-day work week. Winning this transformative change in our working lives would free us up to spend time with the people we love, learn new skills, and generally would lift the spirits of millions of working Americans currently being crushed by the expectations of the bosses.

Winning a four-day work week on this basis, one that will benefit workers, will require that we fight for it ourselves rather than waiting for the bosses to hand it down with strings attached. The labor movement needs to launch an independent fight for a four-day work week with no loss in pay and no lengthening of the work day. This cannot be done through hand-holding with bosses who will always prioritize squeezing the absolute most out of their workers.

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