The case for a 30-hour working week

Procrustes, Poseidon’s son in ancient Greek mythology, was the inhospitable innkeeper. He kept an iron bed in which he invited passers-by to stay the night. No guest was ever suited to Procrustes’ bed. They were either too short or too tall. If they were too short Procrustes would stretch them out, and if they were too tall he would cut off their limbs.

While it also serves as a reminder of the positive role of internet travel reviews, Procrustes’ iron bed is more aptly suited to a metaphor for how we relate to our economy. We build the economy for our common benefit, yet those who run it have turned it against the rest of us for their own pleasure. Those of us in work feel stretched and stressed, with not enough time to actually live our lives. Those of us who aren’t in work – who aren’t needed to turn a profit – are cut off from our neighbours and discarded.

Either way, the wealthiest – the 1 per cent – make us fit the iron bed for their own gain. Our lives are being stretched, suspended, and cut up for the pleasure of Procrustes’ modern-day descendants.

We need to take control of the iron bed and change its shape so we fit; we need to make the economy work for us. Campaigning and winning the reduction of the working week from 38 to 30 hours, with no loss of pay, can free us from our present position of subjugation.

Think about your own life. What would you do if the full-time working week was reduced to 30 hours? That amounts to an additional 8 hours per week – over 400 hours per year – to have the freedom to live your life. Imagine the changes you could make. You’d have more time to find meaning in nurturing close relationships, engaging in community service or pursuing long-neglected hobbies. Your wellbeing would significantly improve.

Sweden is beginning to experience a shift towards a 6-hour day. Workplaces are experimenting with this, including a nursing home in Gothenburg which is in the middle of a 24-month trial. Prior to the trial, the Gothenburg nursing home engaged sixty nurses. It has since hired an additional fourteen. Yet preliminary results indicate higher wellbeing amongst the nursing staff and better care quality for residents.

A 30-hour week gives us a chance to create a more caring society. Those of us who are working parents would be able to drop our children off and pick them up from school. No longer would the primary care of children be a structural impediment to earning a full-time wage.

More time away from work would also create greater space for us to alter unequal gender relationships. Shorter working hours would encourage a more equal division of housework. Less time away from home gives less room for male full-time workers to use their work as an excuse to perpetuate the unbalanced home responsibilities of their parents.

The 30-hour week also creates opportunities for those of us who are out of work or in insecure jobs without enough hours. It forces our economic masters to hire our neighbours in order to get the job done. In the face of increasing automation, the need to more evenly distribute existing hours of work will only grow. Otherwise, more and more people will be deemed surplus to economic requirements.

Furthermore, a 30-hour week protects both people and planet. Diverting productivity gains away from the economy and towards increased leisure time gives us the time to avoid a climate disaster. In a 30-hour week, some of us would be going into work less often. More importantly though, all of us would be making a decision to use our common prosperity on increased leisure time instead of buying more stuff that still hasn’t yet made us happy.

The deeper question is not the relative merits of a 30-hour week but how we can win it in the face of opposition from the 1 per cent. Like any measure for the common good, many in a position of privilege will fight hard to stop it.

There is an intrinsic worth in the #FightFor30. A broad civil society coalition, with unions and environmental NGOs working in partnership, will grow in strength as it campaigns around a reduced working week as part of a common vision for our future. It will create a social movement that tomorrow will have possibilities that just don’t exist today.

When a group of Melbourne stonemasons walked off the job for an 8-hour day nearly 160 years ago, they created the space for the emergence of a thriving Australian trade union movement. In the same way that the struggle for an 8-hour day formed an entry point into late nineteenth century socialism, so too can the #FightFor30 act as a gateway to a wider set of struggles around our common future.

The #FightFor30 would create a common front for a new Australia. Every currently isolated set of workplace agreement negotiations would be connected to a broader struggle for our future. Graduates without a future of secure employment would have a direct interest in, say, construction workers fighting for a 30-hour week. New alliances and new possibilities will emerge.

We cannot wait around for the leaders of progressive Australia to start something. We all need to act if we want to see change.

If you want to #FightFor30 and you’re a union member, then speak with your union representative or contact the union office and tell them so. If you support an environmental NGO or other civil society group then contact them too. If like most Australians you aren’t a union member then contact Australian Unions and tell them you want to see shorter working hours and that you want to join the #FightFor30.

If that doesn’t get the message through, then take to the streets. May Day this year marks the 130th anniversary of the Haymarket Massacre, in which Chicago workers were gunned down in the street for standing up for an 8-hour day. May Day is not just about our past. May Day is also about our future. Let May Day 2016 bring on the #FightFor30.

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Godfrey Moase

Godfrey Moase is an Executive Director, United Workers Union. He’s previously written for the Guardian, Overland, Jacobin and New Matilda.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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