Working Hours and Progressive Politics

Victories over the Bush administrations pro-corporate agenda have been few and far between. Nonetheless this past September progressive forces won a major victory in the US Senate. The Senate rejected a Labor Department proposal that would have reclassified many white and blue collar workers as managerial employees despite their very limited discretionary power within the workplace. These seemingly technical changes would have deprived them overtime protections in federal law. This issue is now in the hands of a House-Senate conference committee. But in a larger context the future of overtime will remain a hotly contested issue in American politics.

The business community is adamant in its determination to place more severe limits on workers' rights to collect overtime pay. Businesses maintain that they need more flexibility if they are to run competitive workplaces in the global economy. In addition to efforts to re-classify many blue and white-collar workers as exempt from overtime pay, business now wants the right to compensate workers for overtime with compensatory time off instead of time and a half.

Unfortunately, the flexibility that business demands will not be extended to workers. Workers will have no choice as to whether to accept compensatory time or increased monetary compensation. Even the time when compensatory time is to be taken would be determined by the employer. Should that employer go bankrupt in the intervening time the worker is left without any compensation for extra hours of work. Is such an an extraordinary grant of discretionary authority necessary for this economy to function?

One way to gain a better perspective on such questions is to look at the history of political struggles over control of the working day. In the 1920s and '30's, US unions fought hard to establish first the 48-hour and then the 40-hour week. They argued that reasonable hours limitations would tighten labor markets by preventing management from endlessly stretching working hours for key personnel. Their concerns, however, were not merely monetary. They also believed that endless hours of work interfered with opportunities for creative leisure, civic participation, and family time.

The standard working week for most blue- and white-collar Americans shrank considerably in the '50s and '60s. Far from making the US economy either unproductive or uncompetitive, these years were the heyday of American capitalism. Other factors besides hours of work were involved. Nonetheless, it is hard to argue that reduction in working hours had a detrimental effect on workplace quality or productivity.

In an international context, the same argument is played out today. In Western Europe, France especially has been a target of business community abuse for its late-'90s reductions of the standard work week to 35 hours. Yet despite the business press's insistence that a limited work week would render France uncompetitive, recent International Labor Organization statistics confirm that France is doing extraordinarily well. Norway, France and Belgium now lead the world in absolute levels of worker productivity. Not coincidentally these three nations are characterized by an active politics around issues of working hours.

A number of circumstances make this a propitious time for labor unions, liberals within the Democratic Party, feminists and progressives to advocate more worker- and family-friendly approaches to the issue of overtime. With a sluggish economy making only tentative moves toward full recovery, it is especially important that employers not respond to improvements in the market by stretching the hours of already overworked personnel. Not only will such a course be unjust to those workers, it will also leave a substantial pool of unemployed workers whose tenuous fiscal circumstances will decrease consumer demand and slow the pace of recovery. In addition, in many service sector occupations, such as hospitals and day care centers, stretching hours of work endangers those who are served by the employees.

The United States is now most workaholic society in the advanced industrial world. Our political leaders and our business press devote too little attention to the social consequences of the long working hours and even forced overtime many private employers impose. For most workers, simply getting another job is not an option. Social policy must intervene. In his recent book on the connections between socioeconomic inequality and the new social movements, How Class Works, Stanley Aronowitz asks us to "imagine what a society would be like if businesses recognized as legitimate the needs to maintain a quality family and personal life … the 8- to 10- or 12-hour day many industrial and intellectual workers are obligated to endure would be out of the question. Where both partners participated in paid labor the waged working day would be sharply curtailed. Both partners would have the prerogative of leaving their job as a matter of right when a child becomes ill or needed to to be picked up from school early. In short, think of radical change as consisting in social arrangements in which the job is subordinate to life."

We are a long way from such a world. The standard wisdom is that such a scenario is too radical for most Americans. Yet neither social policy nor the private market gives many workers the opportunity to make such choices. At the very least social policy must expand the choices American workers enjoy. As a start, Progressives might advocate legislation to ban mandatory overtime and to offer workers the option of compensatory time on terms more favorable to them.

The Bush administration has presented a very radical attack on even limited forms of workplace protection. Progressives need to do more than block these initiatives. They must respond with imaginative agendas of their own if they are to build the coalitions that can transform our politics.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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