Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a nomination hearing for labor secretary nominee Julie Su in Washington, DC, US, on April 20, 2023. (Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Originally published in Jacobin on April 25, 2023
Bernie Sanders is calling for a reduction in the workweek to 32 hours, at full-time pay. He’s absolutely right. Gains in productivity should serve the working class.
Earlier this month, Bernie Sanders renewed his long-standing call to reduce the workweek to thirty-two hours. He pointed out that there have been “huge advances in technology and productivity” in the eight decades and change since the Fair Labor Standards Act capped the workweek at forty hours.
Critics argue that it’s fine if technological advances deliver the shorter workweek without government intervention, but that “top-down” interference in the free market is a bad idea. This idea doesn’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny. If the reduction in hours was going to happen without being mandated, it would have happened long ago.
Bernie is right. If we want increased productivity to benefit the working class, we need to take political action to make that happen.
Top-Down or Bottom-Up, Someone Better Mandate It
The idea is slowly gaining traction. Last year, a state-level version was proposed in California, and this March, there was an attempt in Congress to institute a thirty-two-hour workweek by amending the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Right now, these efforts face an uphill battle to say the least. The California bill stalled out in 2022, though it could be amended and reintroduced this year. The federal attempt is going to be strangled in the crib as a matter of course. It was introduced in the House Education and Workforce Committee, whose chair, Republican representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, has said that “blanket federal regulations often cause more harm than good” because they don’t account for the “unique needs” of various groups, and that “Main Street America” doesn’t need “more top-down federal mandates.”
When the California version was proposed last year, Reason magazine’s Scott Shackford made similar complaints:
If modernization inevitably leads to people getting as much (or more) work done in fewer hours than they did in the past, then shorter workweeks are an awesome byproduct. We’re certainly not going to complain about people having to work less. . . . However, it’s not something that can be ordered top down via fiat by government officials who don’t have to deal with the consequences.
All this talk of “top-down” mandates makes me wonder what Foxx or Shackford would think about “bottom-up” mandates imposed by strong labor unions. I suspect neither of them would support the PRO Act or similar efforts to create a more favorable legal environment for organizing unions.
In fact, Shackford treats as insidious the provision in the California proposal that would exempt companies that have collective-bargaining agreements with their unions. He equates this with extortion to accept unionization. “It would be a shame if something happened to your company’s business model.”
Personally, I find it difficult to sympathize with the plight of employers “extorted” to stop their union-busting efforts. And a choice between accepting blanket rules mandating shorter hours or negotiating directly with your employees about what hours and other conditions they’re willing to accept seems reasonable enough on its face. But the real point here is that all this talk of “top-down” regulations misses the point. What the critics object to isn’t really that the proposed mandate comes from the “top,” but the fact that it’s a mandate.
Shackford’s claim that he’d be fine with a shorter workweek if it resulted “inevitably” from technological advances willfully misses the point. We know perfectly well that it won’t happen that way. There was a 299 percent increase in labor productivity from 1950 to 2020. As Senator Sanders rightly suggests, the benefits of that increase largely went to the top of society. It certainly didn’t automatically generate a shorter workweek.
The nature of capitalist property relations make such “natural” decreases deeply unlikely. If workers collectively owned and democratically ran their own workplaces, they would have the option of responding to laborsaving technological advances by simply voting themselves reduced hours with no reduction in income. But with labor and ownership separated, owners have little incentive to make that decision.
The “Modest Magna Carta” for the Working Class
In nineteenth-century Britain, even the struggle for a sixty-hour week — ten hours a day, Monday through Saturday — was waged in the face of ferocious resistance by employers. Chapter Ten of Karl Marx’s masterpiece Capital is devoted to analyzing this struggle.
Much of the chapter is spent chronicling horrors like deaths from overwork and children deprived of time to play through endless hours in factories, workshops, or bakeries. He mentions a town that held a public meeting to petition for working hours to be reduced to eighteen hours a day. But Marx’s overall focus is analytical. He spends a lot of time taking apart the rationalizations offered up by apologists for the capitalist class, like the Oxford political economist Nassau Senior, who absurdly argued that the “last hour” of the workday was so essential to profits that the economy would collapse if hours were reduced at all.
At the end of the chapter, Marx celebrates the eventual passage of the Ten Hours Act:
For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies,” the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling, by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death. In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.”
If the Ten Hours Act in Britain — or the Fair Labor Standards Act in the United States — was the equivalent of the Magna Carta for the relations between labor and capital, that analogy is worth unpacking a bit. When King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, recognizing certain rights he couldn’t infringe, this was the first major limitation on royal power. But Britain wouldn’t be anything like the advanced democracy it is today if the struggle to roll back royal power had ended in the thirteenth century.
Technology and productivity have advanced to an astonishing degree since President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. But the limitation on how many hours workers can be made to spend on the job if they want to be able to make a living has stayed in place. They don’t get one more lousy hour a week to spend with their loved ones or spend pursuing their own interests that their grandparents didn’t get in the 1940s.
Bernie is right. We’re long past the time for that to change.
Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.