When talking to your local anarcho-syndicalist on why someone should join their union, they usually give a long list of all the things taken for granted today that are the result of organized labor fights in the past, with the weekend being the most enthusiastically mentioned. Now it is easy to believe that the eight-hour workday came suddenly and out of nowhere, thanks to one, very big general strike, and then everyone had to work only eight hours, had good wages, and could enjoy their weekend. But reality is much more complicated. Trying to locate the point in time when working eight hours became the norm shows that there is no “first” victory, but many. Skilled workers, unskilled industrial union workers, and legal regulation have all earned the eight-hour workday over the course of a century. The earliest documented eight-hour workday ‘victory’ seems to be in New Zealand during the colonial era, likely as a result of labor scarcity, with a very amusing story.
The honour of introducing the eight-hour day in New Zealand is traditionally assigned to Samuel Duncan Parnell. A London carpenter, Parnell, on his arrival at Petone in 1840, insisted on working no longer than eight hours when erecting a store for the merchant George Hunter. In later years, other claimants have come forward as the “founder” of the eight-hour system, but Parnell’s claim remains the best. The idea of reducing the hours of work was in the air in 1840. It was discussed on the emigrant ships on the voyage out and was carried into practice on arrival. Carpenters were at the forefront of the movement; a meeting of carpenters outside German Brown’s (Barrett’s) Hotel, Wellington, in October 1840, is said to have pledged itself “to maintain the eight-hour working day, and that anyone offending should be ducked into the harbour.”
What is considered more of a ‘real’ labor movement, however, started on May 1, 1886 with a strike in Chicago for the eight-hour campaign, which turned into a violent clash leading to bombing cops and executing anarchists, and ending with the New Deal era Fair Labor Standards Act in 1937. This was by no means a monolithic social movement, beyond the class-based labor movement, Jewish immigrants also pressed to have Saturdays off for religious reasons. To quote historian Michael Feldberg: “If the Jewish Sabbath had been on Wednesday, we would not have a weekend. We would have Wednesday and Sunday off.” During the same time, Henry Ford, who is no friend of organized labor or the Jews, made the decision to double his workers’ wages to five dollars a day in 1914 and to implement the eight-hour workday in 1926. This was a decade before the militant wave of strikes in the 1930s that got the United Auto Workers(UAW) into the shopfloor of the big three auto manufacturers. So it seems more likely that many factors converged at a critical moment to create the modern work schedule, including organized labor, religious communities, an increase in industrial productivity, and a new interest from within the business elite to increase consumption.
This should not be misunderstood as some force of nature and inevitable progress, for example, in Shenzhen’s corporate work culture, they have a schedule known as 9/9/6, which means, from 9 AM to 9 PM, and 6 days a week. And this isn’t even for poor Chinese peasants who work in factories just to survive, but for highly skilled, and educated workers in the tech sector who belong to the middle class, in a new industry that only came into existence two decades ago. It is said that some companies even advertise 6/6/5 as a more humane work schedule, in which it is only 12 hours a day with the weekend off. So technological progress in itself won’t bring a shorter workweek, even in industries that grow exponentially such as software
In the last few years, a situation similar to the early labor movement has started to form. Some class tension began to form after the 2008 crises, and no new industries have been created to replace the ever-shrinking blue-collar manufacturing union jobs. On top of that automation seems to be accelerating. Then you have some isolated bosses experimenting with a four-day workweek. A management company in New Zealand found no downsides, and better worker life satisfaction, Microsoft Japan tried the same and productivity jumped by 40%, even the notoriously brutal Amazon considered a 30-hour pilot, and with enough research, small companies have started to embrace a shorter workweek too. There is even a website dedicated to 30-hour jobs, currently showing about a dozen employers.
Now, a four-day workweek is in no way a radical proposal, it is still four days too much. Just to give some numbers, productivity since 1970 has doubled, and real wages have remained nearly flat, the cost of Intellectual Property represents 38% of GDP, one out of four renters pay more than 50% of their income on rent, and even the ‘privileged’ middle class pays 27%. In other words, of every 10 hours of work, four go to intellectual property costs which could be free without a government-enforced monopoly, and three to five hours go to landlords. And this is without measuring the overhead costs of management and bosses who should not even exist under worker self-management. The real limits of the workweek, when all the cruft is removed, is something extremely distant from 30 hours, and closer to 10 hours a week. We could even entertain the possibility of a post-work society not as a utopia, but as a reality on the horizon for the next generation.
The good news is that the four-day workweek campaign was accumulating gains before it even started. Out of the 52 weeks in the year, 10 of them have a legal day off, most of them on Mondays and Fridays, in other words, 20% is done. This could also be a strategy to continue — rather than demanding to wipe out Monday off the calendar, single holidays can creep in one by one each year, so that by the end of the decade it becomes easier politically to demand the remaining 25 days or so with a formal long weekend.
Along with the traditional labor movement, a broader coalition can be built, such as with students who tend to have a louder voice and are better at spreading the message, and the environmentalist movement who are interested in lowering carbon emissions with less commuting and workplace electricity use. It is also good that the numbers so far show positive results and better productivity, this could allow the Good Boss™ types to soften up the public, and allow more moderate politicians to follow along. Just like Henry Ford before, some modern oligarchs are not against even a 3-day workweek. While an alliance with the business elite should be avoided, especially when such an alliance could mean a compromise with a crucial part of the working class, there is potential to use the bosses to our own ends. From a strategic distance, we can allow them to speak while still maintaining some friction and make things slightly uneasy for a social movement to become a mild moderate or centrist one.
If a movement starts today, it seems likely given the current condition to achieve the results at some point during the next decade. What is important is to not make the same mistakes as the New Deal coalition, which first threw black workers under the bus as a compromise by not extending labor protections to sharecroppers, and then excluded black people from the GI Bill. This class treachery should not happen again. A broad coalition could also negatively impact hourly wage workers, as they might simply be paid less as a result of less work, while salaried workers won’t be affected since they have annual contracts, so it’s important to include hourly workers in the fight for a four-day workweek. The same goes for the students who would be happy with their long weekend, and the greens who want to mitigate climate change. A four-day workweek should benefit all, and it might be necessary to follow suit with the New Zealand carpenters, who demanded a four-day workweek at the expense of others, with any dissenters being ducked into the harbor.