What’s Wrong with a 30-Hour Work Week?

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 U.S., 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 CO2 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 on Sunday.5  At the same time that many were organizing to reduce their hours to 12 per day, the Chartist movement made the 10-hour day “their political, election cry.”6

The high point of U.S. labor organizing during the 19th century was on May 1, 1886, when 300,000 workers went on strike for the 8-hour day.  The brutal repression that came down in Chicago with the Haymarket arrests and executions sparked the international celebration of May Day.7

In his classic description of the fervor for an eight hour day that began in 1884 and increased in pitch through 1886, Jeremy Brecher made observations that are still relevant.

First, the leadership of the dominant labor organization of the day, the Knights of Labor, attempted to put brakes on the 8-hour movement.  It was often the grassroots that pushed forward, dragging the leaders behind them in city after city.

Second, the 1886 strike wave, far more than previous labor actions, “became above all strikes for power.”8  The 1886 demands were for control over work hours, hiring and firing, and the organization of work.

Third, and most important, the struggle for the 8-hour day did not wait until the 10-hour day had been won.  Unbelievably long hours were still common.  Successful strikes meant that, in many industries, workers “of all kinds have reduced their hours of labor from 15 to 12 and 10.”9  Workers who only a few years earlier had 12-15 hour per day jobs were now demanding the 8-hour day.  Marx similarly wrote that the Chartist movement for the 10-hour day was popular amongst those with a work week of up to 100 hours.

Does Anyone Work for Less than 40 Hours?

While interviewing Spanish longshoremen in 1989, I spent hours talking to Juan Madrid in Barcelona.  Every summer he and his wife had the problem of making sure that they had the same month for vacation.  “Do American workers really get off less than a month?” he asked me incredulously.

“Two weeks is the most common; some only get one week; and many get no paid vacation at all,” I let him know.  Factoring in longer vacations, he had an average work week considerably shorter than the typical U.S. worker.  This is the rule, and not the exception, in Europe.

Reducing the work week below 40 hours has preoccupied many labor organizations.  In the 1930s, the American Federation of Labor lobbied for a six-hour day.10  In 1990, BMWs plant in Regensburg adopted a 36-hour week.  German Volkswagen employees accepted a 10% pay cut to achieve a 28.8-hour work week.  The Digital Corporation had 530 employees who opted for a 4-day week with a 7% pay cut so that 90 jobs could be saved.11

Victories for shorter work weeks may only be temporary.  Tim Kaminski told me that he loved the extra free time he gained from winning a 7-hour day (with no loss in pay) at the St. Louis Chrysler minivan plant in 1992.  But the contract stipulated that it would last only until another plant reopened, which happened two years later.12

It is not unknown for politicians to champion the cause of fewer hours.  Before joining the Supreme Court, as a U.S. Senator Hugo Black introduced legislation for a 30-hour work week in 1933.13  More recently, the French Senate looked into a 33-hour week.14

One of the least known flirtations with the 30-hour work week was by the cereal giant W.K. Kellogg Company.  In 1930, the company announced that most of its 1500 employees would go from an 8-hour to a 6-hour work day, which would provide 300 new jobs in Battle Creek.  Though the shorter work week involved a pay cut, the overwhelming majority of workers preferred having increased leisure time to spend with their families and community.15

New managers who began running Kellogg had no enthusiasm for the shorter work day.  They polled workers in 1946 and found that 77% of men and 87% of women would choose a 30-hour week even if it meant lower wages.  Disappointed, management began examining which work groups liked money more than leisure and began offering the 40-hour week on a department-by-department basis.

How long did it take them to get rid of the 30-hour week?  Almost 40 years!  The desire to have more time to themselves was so strong that it was not until 1985 that Kellogg was able to eliminate the 30-hour work week in the last department.

The experience at Kellogg indicates that it is absolutely false to say that all workers all of the time crave more stuff and will sacrifice anything to get it.  Karl Marx made a similar observation when writing about “The Working-Day.”  Quoting results of a poll of those who had labored excruciating hours at a Lancashire factory, “They would much prefer working 10 hours for less wages.”16

Why Would Any Progressive Criticize a 30-hour Work Week?

Despite all of this, there is something problematic with advocating a 30-hour work week at the beginning of the 21st century: a 30-hour week is not short enough!  There is mushrooming unemployment amidst mountains of useless products.  An hour of labor now produces more goods than has ever been the case in the history of humanity.  Combining these means that there is no reason for anyone to work more than 20 hours per week.

Every year, clever folks figure out how to churn out more stuff with fewer hours of labor.  Jeffrey Kaplan observed that, “By 1991, the amount of goods and services produced for each hour of labor was double what it had been in 1948.”17  This was a doubling of labor productivity in only 43 years.  Jon Bekken calculates a more rapid rate: “Automation and other innovations result in our productivity (output per work hour) doubling every 25 years or so.”18

In other words, the amount that people produce during an hour of labor doubles every 33 years [give or take 10 years].  We have the ability to produce twice as much during the work day or cut the work day in half and produce the same amount.

Arthur Dahlberg, a consultant to both the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, wrote that capitalism was already capable of satisfying basic human needs with a 4-hour work day.19  He maintained that such a drastic cut in working hours “was necessary to prevent society from becoming disastrously materialistic.”20

The issue was revisited in 1991 by Harvard economist Juliet Schor, who concluded that it would be possible to have a 4-hour work day with no decline in the standard of living.21  Similarly, J.W. Smith argued that “over 50% of our industrial capacity has nothing to do with producing for consumer needs.”22  Years before issues of climate change and peak oil grabbed the public, Smith forecast:

We’re facing an ecological nightmare as we push to the brink the earth’s ability to support us.  We could eliminate much industrial pollution and conserve our precious, dwindling resources by eliminating the 50% of industry that is producing nothing useful for society.23

In a more recent analysis, Smith sifts through the U.S. economy sector by sector to conclude that “we could all work 2.3 days per week with no drop in our living standard.”24

It’s a rare economist who is capable of realizing that there is no reason to constantly scramble for the possession of more objects that fall apart more rapidly.  British philosopher Bertrand Russell also thought that four hours of work per day should be plenty to supply the necessities of life.25

Russell was thinking similarly to Benjamin Franklin, who wrote over 200 years ago:

. . . if every Man and Woman would work for four Hours each Day on something useful, that Labour would produce sufficient to procure all the Necessities and Comforts of Life, Want and Misery would be banished out of the World, and the rest of the 24 hours might be Leisure and Pleasure.26

Labor has become vastly more productive since Ben Franklin contemplated the work day.  However, total output grows even faster than labor productivity.  By including population growth and people seeking to live the lifestyle of the English-speaking rich, Ted Trainer ciphers that “by 2070, given 3% economic growth, total world economic output every year would then be 60 times as great as it is now.”27

This would be a 6000% increase in stuff in 63 years — not exactly healthy for forests, oceans, wildlife, and humans.  If we want our children to be able to live on this planet, the single most important environmental legislation may be restricting people from working more than 20 hours per week.

What’s Stopping a Shorter Work Week?

One factor which is not standing in the way of fewer work hours is “human nature.”  Marshall Sahlins estimated that hunter and gatherer societies probably spent 15-20 hours per week obtaining the necessities to survive.28  Each of us can look inside of ourselves to see the real obstacles to cutting the work week in half: fear that we will lose medical care, pensions, and related survival necessities.

Virtually every working family in America is one medical catastrophe away from bankruptcy.  Countless Americans would gleefully shift to a 20-hour work week if it would not cause them to lose their health insurance.

Pensions pose a similar roadblock.  As they approach retirement, millions of Americans become acutely aware that pensions are based on factors like the average salary of the last three years.  Working part time would cut pension payments during uncertain years.

It is not a well kept secret that employers often give workers less than 40 hours to deny them benefits.  A similar effect occurs from forced overtime.  Even though there may be a higher rate of pay for overtime, a company may save money if it does not pay for the health care and pensions that putting more people on the payroll would require.

Every environmentalist who wants to stop coal companies from blowing the top off of sacred mountains should be on those mountains screaming that private health insurance and pension plans must be replaced by single payer health care and a social security system with at least a four-fold expansion of payments.  In case the environmental significance is not clear.

1. Halting the cancerous growth of useless fall-apart junk production requires a drastic shortening of the work week; and,

2. Cutting the work week can only happen if people are not terrified that fewer hours means they will lose health insurance and pension plans.

These are called “social wages.”  Social wages also include mass transportation, clean water, breathable air, uncontaminated land, and something which is becoming increasingly rare: the right to quality free public education which is coordinated by representatives directly elected by citizens.  These social wages are as important environmentally as medical care and pensions.

The right to a home with electricity and heat is part of the same pattern.  People who are not fearful of being thrown out of their home or losing their utilities have much less incentive to work long hours.

There remains an enormous problem that permeates every other barrier to shortening the working day.  As long as production is based on the maximization of profit, each corporation is pushed to extend working hours as long as possible for fear the competition will do it first.  As Marx described with Lugosian clarity:

The prolongation of the working-day, beyond the limits of the natural day, into the night . . . quenches only in a slight degree the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.  To appropriate labour during all 24 hours of the day is, therefore, the inherent tendency of capitalist production.29

In the 21st century, we should update this to say that capital feeds with two fangs: one to suck the blood of labor and the other fang to drain life from Mother Earth.  Can the 20-hour work week become a wooden stake held by the environmental movement as it is pounded by labor?  Maybe; but not necessarily.  A stake that is driven too shallow will allow the demon to awaken with renewed strength.

When U.S. workers struck for the 8-hour day in 1886, they were going beyond pay issues and demanding that labor have a role in controlling the process of production.  Today, we need a progressive alliance to challenge not only how many hours we work, but the quality, durability, and even the necessity of goods we produce.  Drastically cutting the hours we work will help save the Earth’s ecology, only if it is part of an overarching goal to improve the quality of our lives while reducing the grand mass of manufactured objects.



1  Diener, E., & Seligman, M.E.P.  (2004).  “Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-being.”  Psychological Science in the Public Interest 5.1: 1-31.

2  Holmes, T.H., & Rahe, R.H. (1967).  

“The Social Readjustment Rating Scale.” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 11.2: 213-218.

3  Heinberg, R. (2003).  The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies.  Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 272.

4  Marx, K. (1974).  Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, Volume 1.  Moscow: Progress Publishers (first published in 1887), 264.

5  Capital, 252.

6  Capital, 267.  According to labor activist David Macaray, parallel efforts happened in the U.S., with an 1835 textile strike to shorten the work week to six days of 11 hours and a Boston carpenters’ strike for a 10-hour day.  Personal communication. April 25, 2009.

7  Roediger, D. (1998).  “Haymarket incident.”  In M.J. Buhle, P. Buhle & D Georgakas (Eds.) Encyclopedia of the American Left (296-297).  New York: Oxford University Press.

8  Brecher, J. (1972). Strike!  Boston: South End Press, 32.

9  Strike! 42.

10  Jon Bekken (2000, “Arguments for a Four-hour Day”) also notes that New York City electricians won a 25-hour work week (with obligatory overtime) in 1962; in the 1980s German metal workers struck for a 35-hour week; and Danish “private sector” workers went on strike in 1998 for a 6-hour day.

11  Bush, K. (1994).  “Work Less and Everyone Works.”  In Context: A Journal of Humane Sustainable Culture 37: 42.

12  Kaminski, T. Personal communication. May 16, 2009.

13  Kaplan, J. (May/June, 2008).

“The Gospel of Consumption: And the Better Future We Left Behind.”  Orion Magazine.

14  Bush, 42.  

15  Kaplan’s description of the Kellogg experience is based on Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt’s (1996).  Kellogg’s Six-hour Day.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

16  Capital, 270.  This was in response to owners violating a 10-hour statute by forcing a 12 to 15-hour day with higher pay.

17  Kaplan, 4.

18  Bekken.

19  “A.O. Dahlberg, 91, Economist and Inventor.”  New York Times (October 2, 1989): D12.

20  Kaplan, 3.

21  Schor, J.B. (1991).  The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure.  New York: Basic Books.

22  Smith, J.W. (1989).  The World’s Wasted Wealth.  Kalispell, MT: New Worlds Press, xv.

23  Smith (1989) Book jacket.

24  Smith, J.W. (1994).  “Wasted Time, Wasted Wealth.”  In Context: A Journal of Humane Sustainable Culture 37: 18.

25  Russell, B. (1959).  The Prospects of Industrial Civilization, 2nd edition.  London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 40.

26  Benjamin Franklin, Quoted in Campbell, J. (1999).  Recovering Benjamin Franklin.  Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 228.

27  Trainer, T. (2007).  Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.  The Netherlands: Springer, 2.

28  Sahlins, M. (1974).  Stone Age Economics. London: Tavistock Publications.

29  Capital, 245.

Don Fitz has been surviving on less than 20 hours work per week since he was forced to retire in 2006.  He is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, and can be reached by email at <fitzdon@aol.com>.   This article was published in Synthesis/Regeneration 50 (Fall 2009); it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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