Struggles over working hours, the amount of each day over which workers are compelled to sell our labour power to a boss, were foundational for the early labour movement.
Karl Marx called the Factories Act of 1847, which restricted the working day to 10 hours, “the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class.” Shortening working hours claws back some time from our employers, and widens the amount of time during which where we go and what we do is not determined by direct instructions from capital.
The slogan of the eight hours movement was: “Eight Hours Work – Eight Hours Rest – Eight Hours For What We Will.”
From the first half of the 19th century, labour movement efforts pushed down work hours bit by bit. Bosses grudgingly accepted the trend and adjusted, gaining greater productivity from fresher workers and better equipment. Now the trend has stalled or reversed, in the UK and USA at least.
At Labour Party conference, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell referred to a Eurostat report showing that workers in Britain currently work an average of 42.5 hours per week, above the continent-wide average of 40.3. (Eurostat report here). An OECD study shows that average working hours per capita in both the UK and the USA have increased since around 2007/8 in the USA and around 2010 in the UK (cited here).
Now agitation for a shorter working week in the labour movement in Britain has increased. A “Labour for a 4 Day Week” campaign has been established, and think tanks such as Autonomy and the New Economics Foundation have produced research and reports into the issue.
The Labour Party’s annual conference in September 2019 passed a motion, proposed by the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), calling for “Labour to commit in its next manifesto to rolling out a four day, or 32 hour gross, working week with no loss of pay within a decade”.
The CWU was an appropriate proposer for the motion. The union is currently balloting over 100,000 members in Royal Mail for strikes over a number of demands, including a reduction in the working week.
My own union, the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport workers (RMT), is preparing to ballot workers on London Underground (LU) to win a settlement on pay and conditions which also includes the demand for a 32-hour, four-day week.
Most LU workers currently have a 35-hour contractual week, with hours worked above that given back as “banked rest days”, allocated as additional annual leave.
A growing body of medical evidence shows that the type of extreme shift working we do as rail workers has a severely detrimental impact on health, and increases the risk of numerous diseases including cancer. For us, therefore, the fight for more quality time away from work could be the difference between good and ill health in retirement, or even life and death.
In the context of our dispute, the passing of the 32-hour week policy at Labour conference provides an immediate test for the Labour Party. London Underground is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Transport for London, the metropolitan transport authority administered by the Greater London Assembly, which has a Labour majority and a Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan.
Labour does not have to wait until it governs in Westminster to implement its policy for London Underground workers; Khan could make the policy a reality for us right now.
His record does not inspire confidence. Labour also has national policy to end outsourcing, and yet Khan continues to preside over a hyper-exploitative regime of outsourcing which sees over 2,000 mainly migrant cleaning workers on London Underground and TfL employed by outsourced contractors, and denied the benefits, including travel passes and company sick pay, which directly employed staff receive.
On the 32-hour week, as an outsourcing, transport workers in London will have to take action to force Labour to implement its own policies. That may well be a foreshadowing of what is to come if and when Labour takes power nationally.
The formulation of the policy as a gradual reduction over a “decade” provides a great deal of wiggle-room for those who might want to moderate or obstruct it. Neither the policy, nor John McDonnell’s speech around it, included firm commitments that its implementation would not include clauses intended to soften the blow of introducing it for employers, nor clauses to compel employers to increase their staffing levels to match the reduction in hours.
Much of the general discussion of the idea of a reduced working week in public discourse has posed it less as a benefit for workers, and more as a productivity measure. French workers’ experience of the implementation of a statutory 35-hour working week shows the dangers of such a policy in the hands of a government whose main commitment is not to workers’ rights, but to productivity and labour market flexibility.
The “Aubry Law”, named after the Socialist Party minister responsible for it, was introduced in 2000, and included clauses allowing employers to make implementation agreements that included wage flexibility or even freezes. The French socialist group Lutte Ouvrière wrote at the time, in an article entitled “Behind the 35-Hour Law: Handouts to the Bosses”:
“As for wages after the cut in hours, these laws do guarantee that the workers who are paid the minimum wage and who did not work more than 39 hours per week before, do not lose out on their pay. But for the others, these laws do not guarantee that their previous salary will be maintained. And if the majority of bosses will undoubtedly back down when faced with the risk of employees reactions should their salaries drop, clauses concerning ‘wage restraint’ or ‘wage freezes’ have multiplied and legally so in the agreements which have already been signed.
“Furthermore, in companies which occasionally require overtime, workers’ salaries definitely run the risk of dropping due to an end being put to overtime premiums. Because the Aubry laws allow bosses to implement ‘annualised hours’, 35 hours per week become 1600 hours per year with a 48 hour working week being the maximum allowed (or 44 hours per week over a period of 12 consecutive weeks) and 10 hours per day. In such cases all hours over and above 35 are not considered as overtime resulting in overtime pay.
“The Aubry laws have also introduced into employment laws the possibility for local agreements to take into account work carried out in cycles which are spread over several weeks. In such cases only the hours which are over and above an average of 35 hours per week throughout the entire cycle are considered as overtime. In fact this has often resulted in attempts to make workers work a certain number of Saturdays.”
While it was an advance on the previous situation, the law was intended to benefit “the economy” as such – that is, capital – rather than workers.
A Corbyn-McDonnell government would have a radically different political character to the Jospin government in France, the latter being essentially a French Blair. But the French experience shows us that the struggle must extend beyond simply winning the policy, and contest the terrain of how the policy is implemented.
Wherever possible, workplace activists should seek to build struggles around the issue of working time, and demand Labour supports those struggles full-throatedly – and, where Labour is in power locally, demand it implements its policy, not over a decade, but immediately.