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The Fight For Shorter Working Hours

After being forgotten in the wilderness for the past 30 years, the cause of shorter hours has exploded back into mainstream discourse – and trade unions are at the centre of this change.

Since the dawn of industrial capitalism, the amount of hours a worker spends on the job has been contested and resisted by workers. From working as little as 120 days a year in the late 14th Century, labourers found themselves working nearly 60-hour, six-day weeks by the 1800s. Working hours were particularly high in the “dark satanic mills” - toiling 14 to 16 hour days in horrendous conditions.

The cause of protecting and expanding free time has always been at the core of the union movement and of socialist politics more broadly. For Karl Marx, “the shortening of the working-day is [freedom’s] basic prerequisite.” Theory turned to practice: Eleanor Marx – one of the founding members of the GMB union– made the shorter working week a key demand and quickly won gas workers an eight-hour working day. In 1890 she was also a key organiser for the historic protest of the 8 Hour Movement

By 1919 the International Labour Organisation was founded with the principles of eight-hour days and 48-hour weeks, which quickly became the norm across Europe. As the 20th century rolled on, sectoral agreements negotiated by trade unions ensured that the two-day weekend and the 40 hour week became a standard by 1955.

Since then, the working week has not gone through any major reductions and has largely fallen out of the public imagination. Political parties no longer campaign on it, trade unions tended to prioritise other demands, and there has been no revival of mass mobilisation akin to the 8 Hours Movement. The general trend has been a steady decrease in working hours, although the decline has been much steeper in the likes of Germany, the Netherlands, and all of Scandinavia. In the UK this decline has arrested altogether and has been on the up in recent years.  

The past couple of years have witnessed a complete sea-change in the cause of working time reduction across Europe. The CWU began their “drive for 35” in 2016, culminating in a successful agreement with Royal Mail where they won a 35-hour working week for 130,000 workers across the country. A few months later, the TUC also celebrated its 150th anniversary by calling for a four-day week and higher pay. The Labour Party has announced that they are looking into conducting an independent inquiry into cutting the working week. Unite the Union has also announced a manifesto for the 21st-century workplace which will call for technology to work for everyone through delivering shorter working time.

The growing clamour for a four-day week from across society couldn’t come sooner. The UK’s economy is facing a number of deeply embedded and interconnected crises in the workplace which must be addressed in part through shorter hours, without a reduction in pay. 

In 2018, the total number of days lost to work-related stress, depression rose 3 million to 15.4 million. Overwork is the major reason for sickness at work, with one-in-four of all sick days lost as a direct result of workload. This is a worsening crisis in mental health which needs addressing swiftly.

In addition, we face the looming threat of automation. 30% of existing UK jobs could be impacted by automation by the early 2030s, for example through the use of new AI technologies to replace clerical and administrative functions, and eventually the use of machines to replace manual tasks. One report has found that the highest levels of future automation are predicted in Britain’s former industrial heartlands in the North of England, as well as the Midlands and the industrial centres of Scotland. Rather than allowing automation to lead to mass precarity and increased regional inequality, automation should be harnessed: to reduce working hours and then evenly distribute the secure work that remains.

We must learn lessons from our past. Just as we won the eight-hour day and the weekend, we must demand a four-day week and place unions and popular movements at the heart of that change. 

New Economics Foundation is launching a European newsletter tracking the latest developments across the continent for more click here.

By Aidan Harper, Researcher for NEF and member of the 4 Day Week Campaign