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Reduced Working Hours: The 24-hour Week
by Daniel Stern
There is currently an international trend toward reducing working hours, which is also being driven by politics: In California, a bill is pending in parliament that would reduce working hours in large companies from 40 to 32 hours.
Reducing working hours
24-hour week - how can that work?

Reducing working hours would not only improve the well-being of employees, but would also be good for the climate. A discussion about this is just gaining momentum in Switzerland.

By Daniel Stern
[This article published on 4/28/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

On April 9, a surprising alliance of climate strikers, trade unionists and women's activists gathered across the country for the "Strike for Future". Their demand: a massive reduction in working hours. Even if it did not come to the hoped-for large-scale march, it was nevertheless "an important beginning," says Tiziano De Luca of the climate strike.

For the climate strike, a "radical reduction in working hours" with full wage compensation for low and middle-income earners is central for several reasons: It is a prerequisite for turning away from "climate-damaging overproduction" to an economic system in which only as much is produced as people actually need. Those who have more free time, it is hoped, will consume less. For example, people will not buy climate-damaging ready-made products, but will take their time to cook. In addition, the necessary ecological transformation of the economy means that many jobs will be eliminated; thus, a reduction in working hours is also needed to prevent unemployment.

Radical or pragmatic?

For the climate strike, however, the demand for a reduction in working hours is also a means of strengthening the strategic partnership with the women's movement and the trade unions. For the desired social change, the movement needs strong alliance partners. The women's movement is calling for a massive reduction in working hours because this would make it possible to distribute unpaid work, the majority of which is still done by women, more fairly. For the trade unions, on the other hand, the reduction of working hours has always been a central demand (see "The Eight-Hour Day as a Pacification Measure" following this text).

"In the fight over working hours, we have been on the defensive in recent years," says Vania Alleva, president of Unia. For example, she says, the union has fought against the expansion of store opening hours with more than twenty referendums. For sales staff, longer opening hours mean even more flexibility and working even more when others have the day off. Unia has also repeatedly been confronted with demands for the softening of fixed working hours during negotiations for new collective labor agreements. "Now we want to go on the offensive and are planning working time campaigns in the individual sectors," Alleva says. "This is also about ensuring that the big productivity gains of recent years are passed on to employees."

However, there are huge differences between the climate strike's ideas and the unions' real policies: While the climate strike's action plan assumes a radical reduction to a 24-hour week, pragmatic considerations are at the forefront of the unions' minds, partly because of their rather weak roots in many industries. It would already be a step forward if it were possible for all employees to work part-time in the future. A real reduction in working hours by one or two hours per week with full wage compensation would be celebrated as a great success.

More satisfied, healthier, more loyal

However, there is currently an international trend toward reducing working hours, which is also being driven by politics: In California, a bill is pending in parliament that would reduce working hours in large companies from 40 to 32 hours. In Scotland, a trial will start in 2023 in which employees will be allowed to reduce their working hours by twenty percent without a pay cut. The state is supporting the trial with money and hopes for a happier and healthier population, which should lead to lower healthcare costs. In Belgium, everyone will be allowed to reduce to a four-day week in the future, but without reducing the number of hours worked per week.

A rethink is also underway at individual companies. The corona pandemic has given many employees the opportunity for more personal flexibility, a better balance between work and leisure. Companies, on the other hand, are finding that they have to become more attractive in the battle for talent. For example, many large companies are now experimenting with new working time models. The focus is therefore not on ecological considerations, but on a more satisfied workforce that will then remain loyal to the company.

Sebastian Neubert is a researcher at the Center for Development and Environment at the University of Bern. He is working on working time reduction as a "transformation strategy for a more ecological, just and satisfied society." He, too, has noticed an increased interest in the topic. Recently, his research center would also cooperate with companies that want to reduce their working hours. But are current approaches sufficient in light of the climate crisis?

"From a climate protection point of view, the thrust of the climate action plan with the 24-hour week is correct," says Neubert. The demand sounds utopian, he says, but there has also been no debate about a massive reduction in working hours for years. Neubert, however, sees noticeable effects even with a four-day week: People would commute less, and energy consumption at workplaces could be reduced accordingly. However, the state would have to take accompanying measures to ensure that people did not use their additional free time for climate-damaging activities such as air travel: Greenhouse gas-intensive goods and services would have to be taxed much more heavily.

There would also be a positive effect if wages fell along with the reduction in working hours, says Neubert: "People with less income are responsible for fewer climate-damaging emissions." But those affected, especially those with low incomes, would be unlikely to accept that. Neubert and his research colleagues therefore advocate a differentiated model: full wage compensation for those who earn less than the median wage, then only partial wage compensation for incomes slightly above the median wage. Those with the highest incomes, on the other hand, should receive no compensation. After all, it is those with the highest wages who are responsible for the greatest percentage of greenhouse gas emissions.

Industries with image problems

It is hardly conceivable at present that the state will set new working hours in this country. However, leaving it up to individual companies and industries risks moving little in sectors with already poor working conditions, such as hospitality or care. Vania Alleva of Unia puts this into perspective, however: "These industries already have an image problem. Many employees have reoriented themselves in the Corona crisis, and now the companies lack the necessary personnel. I'm convinced that everyone will be better off with the reduction in working hours and that the companies will also benefit." Neubert also sees opportunities for the state to help out financially: In France, for example, companies that reduce working hours and hire more employees in return would receive tax relief.

Although it would be necessary for climate protection reasons, it is not currently foreseeable that working hours will be reduced quickly and on a large scale. Nevertheless, the debate is important: "By discussing the reduction of working hours, we come to the question of what a future worth living looks like," says Tiziano De Luca of the Climate Strike. This is a debate that everyone should face up to.

Historic struggle
The eight-hour day as a pacification measure

May 1, 1890, would be "epoch-making" in world and cultural history, announced a commemorative publication printed in 60,000 copies to prepare readers for the first institutionalized day of struggle of the workers' movement. The Socialist International, also known as the Second International, had previously decided to call for a fight for the eight-hour day - and thus for a radical reduction in working hours - every May 1 from then on.

The formula is catchy: The proletariat should be allowed to work for eight hours, sleep for eight hours and rest for eight hours. That amounts to 48 working hours per week. At that time, there was no talk of a free Saturday.

"Both revolutionary and reformist forces could rally behind the demand for a reduction," says Basel labor historian Bernard Degen. The Second International had unanimously adopted the eight-hour day as the object of May Day. So the idea of uniting left currents through the common goal of a reduction in working hours, as is currently happening, is not new.

The eight-hour day remained the official May Day of Struggle demand in Switzerland until 1919, Degen says. Then it was introduced. In one fell swoop, the maximum legally permitted working time of 59 hours per week was reduced by 11 hours. "Zack - just gone," says the historian. The success had been preceded by the national strike of 1918, which the Federal Council had countered with 95,000 soldiers. Even against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution in 1917, politicians and entrepreneurs were afraid of upheaval at the time, says Degen: "The introduction of the eight-hour day was a pacification measure." The once utopian and revolutionary struggle was thus won.

However, the new regulation was part of the Factory Act - and therefore applied only to work in factories. "Trade and many other professions were exempt until the introduction of the Labor Law in 1964," says the historian. And even today, the labor law continues to have exceptions, such as work in private households. This affects, among others, many 24-hour caregivers, for whom the eight-hour day still does not apply.

Nevertheless, the radical reduction of working hours in 1919 was a historic left-wing success. And from the point of view of politics and entrepreneurs, too, the introduction of the eight-hour day in the sense of pacification thus proved to be a wise move. According to Degen, similar radical demands had never been supported by a broad workers' movement in Switzerland since then.

The practical demand of the commemorative publication calling for the very first May Day in 1890 was thus fulfilled. But the idea on which it was based has remained utopian to this day: "A social state in which everyone enjoys the full yield of his labor, in which peace, freedom and general prosperity prevail."

Lukas Tobler
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