Shorter Working Week: Making Workers Pay

Submitted by Janine on 27 February, 2005 - 10:35

Marxism at Work

All rail workers should be on a (maximum) 35-hour week. In the longer term, we should aim for even fewer hours than this – the next step should be a four-day, 32-hour week.

Why? Because we are human beings and we are not slaves. We have friends, families, hobbies and responsibilities. We want to rest and play as well as work.

When we get our reduced hours, it should be without strings: no loss of pay or jobs, no extra duties, no rosters that are even more anti-social. We already work hard enough - we don’t want our extra time off to be spent recovering from extra stress and exhaustion!

The employers don’t see it like that. When we demand shorter hours, they demand ‘productivity’, insisting that the shorter working week is ‘self-financing’.

In 1996, London Underground traincrew had to swallow a three-year pay freeze to get the 35-hour week. Now, Underground station staff and signallers are finally getting theirs, but at the cost of job cuts on the stations, and a poor pay rise and divisive regrading for signallers.

How else could employers ‘pay for’ our shorter working week?

By cutting directors’ over-inflated salaries. Or trimming their hotel bills. Or cutting out deadwood bureaucracy. Better still, the rail industry could be brought back into public ownership and given enough investment to enable it to run as a public service.

This is not just about money. Working hours impact on our health, leisure, safety and happiness, and on the ‘customer service’ that our bosses continually (and hypocritically) tell us that they care about. These things can not be measured in pounds and pence. Our management – and the whole capitalist system – knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

In some other services and industries, working hours are even longer than ours. Meanwhile, more than a million workers are unemployed! It’s madness.

Why does this happen?

Because capitalism is not a rational system. For a start, it suits the bosses to keep some people out of work, so that those of us who have jobs are in constant fear of losing them.

Our employers organise their business to make profits, rather than to run a decent service. The capitalist system does the same on a society-wide basis. Rather than plan how to use resources best (including ‘human resources’ ie. us), capitalism leaves it to the profit-driven chaos of the ‘market’. You sell yourself to the highest bidder (or whoever will have you!) in what looks like a fair exchange, but in fact is not.

When we go to work, it appears that we get paid for the week’s work that we do. But that is not really how it works. The work we do creates more value than we are paid. So in reality, we only work part of the week for our own wages. For the rest of the week, our work feathers the nests of our bosses.

It is us – the drivers, station staff, signallers, engineers, track workers and others – who run the railway. But the end-product of our efforts – the service that we run and the money that it brings in – is siphoned off by parasites.

We can see this in the obscene profits of the private companies which operate on the railway. But it also holds true in a ‘public’ body such as London Underground “Limited”, which operates like a business, with its very own fat cats, operating profits and ever-decreasing public investment.

When management attack our conditions as a ‘trade off’ for the shorter working week, they are maintaining their exploitation of us and our work – making us more ‘productive’, so that we still work only part of the week for ourselves, but most of it for them.

Does this mean that these attacks are inevitable?

And should we accept them in return for our shorter hours? No! If we refuse to accept management’s agenda, and organise to resist it, then we can challenge the logic of the system. We can shift the goalposts away from the drive for profit towards the needs of workers.

We will never persuade management to willingly give up their power and privileges. We need to fight. We can do this by building strong trade unions, through which we can unite and use our most potent weapon – the power to withdraw our labour.

This will be most effective if rank-and-file workers organise to ensure that union leaders do not sell us short by signing up to poor deals such as the 1996 LUL traincrew agreement or the new signallers’ deal.
We can fight off attacks and we can win shorter hours and better rights for workers. But while the capitalist system continues, the gains we win are fragile. The employers will come back and attack us again.

Change the system

So we need to change the whole system, replacing the profit-driven capitalist system with socialism: a democratic, classless society where production is organised to meet human need. Instead of working to fill capitalists’ pockets, we will work in decent conditions to produce goods and services that we and our communities know are needed, because we will have decided that democratically.

We need to fight for this:

  • industrially – taking strike action to defend and extend our rights
  • politically – fighting for a legally-enforced 35-hour week, and to elect people who genuinely represent working-class people’s needs and views
  • ideologically – understanding and exposing this system for what it is, and working out a better way to do things.

That is what Marxism is for, and what Workers’ Liberty aims to do.