What's wrong with a 30-hour work week?

Author:Fitz, Don
Position::Climate Economics: Sense & Nonsense - Report
 
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With millions of jobs lost during the first part of 2009, who is calling for a shorter work week to spread the work around? Not the Republicans. Not even the Democrats. But why is there nary a peep from unions?

In the US, auto sets the pace for organized labor. The only discussion at the top levels of the UAW (United Auto Workers) is how quickly the gains won during the last 50 years can be given back. Does the UAW have no memory of the 1930s and 40s when a shorter work week was at the center of organizing demands?

The gross domestic product (GDP) is plummeting at the same time that jobs are disappearing. Why should there be any connection between the two? If society produces 10% less, why don't we all just work 10% less? Didn't things work like that for hundreds of thousands of years of human existence? When people figured out easier ways to get what they needed, they spent less time doing it.

It's called "leisure." Leisure is essential for a democratic society involving people in all aspects of self-government. Instead of working frenetically to produce "stuff" that we don't have the time to enjoy, wouldn't we be better off with less "stuff" and more time of our own? Research repeatedly shows that, once important needs are met, additional belongings bring no additional happiness. (1) Yet work is strongly related to stress. (2)

A labor-environment connection?

It's more than stress to the human nervous system. Manufacturing too much stuff stresses every aspect of the environment. The voracious appetite of corporate growth destroys homes of the wolf and bear in North America. Swiftly disappearing are the last refuges of chimpanzees in Africa and orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra. Mangrove forests give way to beach resorts as long-line-fishing kills 100 sea animals for every fish eaten by a human.

Vastly more creatures fall prey to the 80-100,000 chemicals spewed into the air, water and land. Countless molecules of chlorine and fluorine go into pesticides and plastics that destroy immune and reproductive systems. Elemental structures of lead, mercury, and of course, radioactive particles, are Thanatos to living systems.

The most frequent building block of toxins is oil. With more than 40 hours of labor contained in each gallon, oil is the closest thing to free energy that humanity has ever discovered, [3] A substance that should be used sparingly so that many future generations could use it for medical and other essential products, oil is being squandered at an exponential rate by a corporate culture determined that its descendants will despise it.

The only way that corporate America knows to shield itself from loathing by its progeny is by working overtime to prevent those generations from existing. As climate change changes from "if/when" to "How rapidly is it increasing?" corporations befuddle our senses with a dazzling array of green gadgets, each of which pumps more [CO.Sub.2] into the atmosphere during its manufacture and distribution.

Nevertheless, corporate media propagandizes non-stop that we must be unhappy from the economic downturn and pray for a quick return to the normal rate of planetary extermination. So it's time to ask why another set of voices is not demanding a shorter work week: Why do the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Federation, and a host of other Washington lobby groups fail to point out that an economic slowdown with a fair distribution of jobs would be the treatment of choice for a sick environment?

Centuries of struggle for the working day

Some of the most insightful writing on hours of labor is in Karl Marx's Capital. While most of it reflects the analytical style of 19th century economic writing, Chapter X on "The Working-Day" reveals Marx's passionate outrage at what long hours do to workers' health. The problem started as infant capitalism found the hours of labor under feudalism to be insufficient to satisfy its urges for expansion.

In response to a shortage of labor due to the plague, England's 1349 "Statute of Laborers" sought to ensure that the working day was sufficiently long. An Elizabethan statute of 1562 lengthened the working day by reducing the time for meals. Emphasizing that it took capitalism centuries to lengthen the working day to 12 hours, Marx noted that one of the milestones was the elimination of church holidays by Protestantism. (4)

By the 19th century, some had work weeks of 15 hours per day for 6 days per week plus 8--10 hours...

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