It's Late - Still at Work?

We seem to be moving backward on the issue of work hours.

About 65 years ago, the Black-Connery bill, which would have established a 30-hour work week as the norm for American workers, easily passed the United States Senate. Only determined lobbying and arm-twisting by the Roosevelt administration prevented Black-Connery from passing the House.

Through the 1920s and early '30s, there were many who believed a 25-hour week possible, given the labor-saving possibilities of then-new technologies. How best to use one's newfound leisure time was a major topic of public debate and discussion.

Even some businesses got in on the act. In 1930, for example, the Kellogg Company launched a 30-hour week. Within a few years, company executives were proudly proclaiming that they were getting as much work out of people in six hours a day as they had in eight.

Such results confirmed the findings of management studies conducted on shipyard and other defense plant workers during World War I, when work hours in US federal enterprises were limited by executive order.

But today, despite our advanced technologies, we're working more, not fewer, hours than we did 20 years ago, reversing a century-long trend toward shorter work time.

Most managers wishing to retain their positions, let alone those aspiring to higher ones, now are on call 24 hours a day through the cellular phone and fax machine. Those who express any reluctance to work nights or weekends are quickly branded "part-timers" insufficiently dedicated to their jobs. They're apt to be marginalized within organizations, if not dropped from management ranks altogether.

If all this new technology is making us so much more efficient than our parents' generation, then why do we have to work harder than they did? And why does it take two breadwinners for families to achieve the same standard of living achieved by a single breadwinner 30 years ago?

In an attempt to find some answers, I recently attended a conference in Toronto hosted by "32 Hours," a Canadian organization devoted to reducing working hours as a means of creating jobs and improving people's overall quality of life.

The presentations were interesting and informative, but I was disappointed by the timidity of most of the proposals put forth. Not one person advocated a legislated 32-hour week, something the powerful German union IG Metall has long been pushing, or even the 36-hour week, such as that now enjoyed by most Dutch workers. Nor did anyone push for an increase in overtime premiums as a means of discouraging overtime and encouraging companies to hire more workers.

The speakers I liked best were those (mainly women) who emphasized values and family concerns in their approach to the work-hours issue. Judy Rebick, a well-known Canadian television personality, said, "Kids simply don't have enough time with adults" in a country where two-thirds of all married women with children work. Antipoverty activist Josephine Grey suggested the main problem is that society values money too much and people too little.

Unfortunately, even Rebick and Grey stopped short of advocating the kinds of tough, specific policy measures that might actually lead to a world where people put in reasonable weeks.

No doubt the speakers, in their caution, were bowing to current political realities - that employers increasingly have the whip hand. Still, it's more than a little disheartening to hear labor delegates to a reduced-hours conference stop short of some of the measures advocated (and occasionally used) by the more enlightened members of the American business community in the 1920s and '30s.

WHY is everyone running so scared around the work-hours issue? In a country like Canada, where real unemployment rates are well into double digits and new jobs are almost impossible to find, many workers are afraid to stand up to their employers, no matter how unreasonable the latter's demands.

Often, employers cite global competitiveness as the reason for imposing long (and frequently unpaid) overtime hours. But it's a myth that longer hours mean increased competitiveness. If this were the case, Brazil, where a 50-plus hour week is the norm, ought to be more competitive than Germany, where the norm is less than 40.

If we're to have any realistic hope of shortening work hours, we need more scientific management experiments like those of the World War I shipyards, as well as more farsighted businesspeople like the Kelloggs, who knew instinctively what few today seem to remember: that competitiveness is based on getting the best, not the most, hours out of an employee.

The labor movement, too, will have to unite around the shorter-hours cause, as it did so well during an earlier period of our history.

* Jon Peirce is a freelance writer in Ottawa who has studied and taught Canadian and comparative industrial relations. He's currently preparing a study on the issue of shorter work hours.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.