Samuel Gompers, labor leader at the beginning of this century, declared, that if one person is out of work, we should redistribute existing work so that he could be employed. In the course of the
1992 presidential campaign, with seven million potential workers unemployed, and another estimated seven million underemployed, organized labor ran advertisements advocating the eight-hour day, five-days-a-week of work, plus overtime.
A recent Harvard study reports that persons in the United States who are employed are working more hours a year than they have been in the past--on average 160 hours a year, or the equivalent in hours of a full month of work, if measured by the 40-hour-per-week standard of the Federal Wages and Hours Act, than they did in 1969.
A Brookings Institution report estimates that if the overtime being worked in the United States were distributed, it could give work to approximately three million of the unemployed. The average overtime being worked per week is approximately 3.5 hours, or about eight to ten percent above the basic legal hours level. If the current trend continues, the average American will be working 60 hours a week by the year 2020.
Overwork is not just the mark of over-achievers, workaholics, and hyperconsumers, according to the Harvard study, but of almost everybody--those in high income groups, middle income classes, lower classes, and of the working poor. Two-income families are becoming the norm, rather than being the exception. Women are entering the work force and are present in it in unprecedented numbers. Latchkey children increase in numbers and the demand for pre-schools, kindergartens, and post-school care increase.
The Japanese, now working an eight-hour day, six days a week, are considering shortening working time to five days a week, which would leave their workers working fewer days than the U.S. workers. Germany, where economic productivity per working person is the highest in the world, has shortened working time to the point where German workers work 300 fewer hours a year than their U.S. counterparts.
In other countries--Australia, the Netherlands and France, for example--movements to lower average working time below 40 hours a week have been successful. Despite this evidence, shortening of working time is opposed by both management and labor in the United States, by the government, and by most labor economists.
Corporate executives, in a survey conducted by Dr. Juliet Schorr of Harvard, expressed almost unanimous agreement that working hours must be increased even more in American industry if we are to be competitive in the "global market."
Their arguments are comparable to those made by business and industry against Henry Ford's $5-a-day wage for eight hours, introduced in 1914.
Henry held that workers not only had to be paid enough so that they could buy what they were producing, in the case of the car, but they also had to be given enough time so that they could drive to and from work. In 1926, Henry went to the five-day week, giving workers more time to drive on weekends.
Labor unions which denounce state right-to-work laws defend the right of their own members to work overtime. The government has shown little interest in the issue, except on the negative side. The most memorable action of recent years was that of the Reagan Administration, which suppressed the attempt on the part of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association in 1981, when that organization sought to gain a 32-hour work week for its members. The traffic controllers received scarce support from organized labor, even when President Reagan fired the striking members.
Politicians, especially Democrats, in the face of organized labor's opposition have been slow to act on unemployment. In 1979 a bill to shorten working time was introduced in the House of Representatives. It had only 13 sponsors and was never acted upon. A companion bill was never introduced in the Senate. A similar bill introduced in the Congress in 1985 received even less attention than that which had been given to the 1979 measure.
The Clinton Administration, in what is referred to as the "stimulus package, proposed to provide jobs for 500,000 workers through expenditures of $30 billion, leaving approximately 6.5 million workers without attention. We continue to overproduce and overconsume automobiles that are oversized and overpowered. We have produced and continue to produce unnecessary and obsolete defense materials and services. We carry on a space program without cost control or benefit measurement, and carry an obligation to pay interest in the amount of over $200 billion a year on the public debt.
The principal means of dealing with the general fiscal and economic disorders in the country has been unemployment supported by under-employment and overwork. The United States, which should be providing example and leadership, has become an economic and social backwater, standing still or falling back while newer ideas, or old unused ones, reflecting changes in production and in social institutions, are adopted in other countries.
The Democratic Administration and the Congress are missing a unique opportunity to redistribute work, rather than keep some employees working full time and overtime while others are dismissed. The government should reduce the working time of retained employees and spread work among those who would otherwise be dismissed. It should require contractors and others doing business with the government, especially in military equipment and supplies to do the same, and it should ease the reduction in forces processes by transfer employment policies.
When mobilizing for war, we can act with dispatch and reasonable policies.
Even partial demobilization and partial demilitarization, and adjustments to the reality following the borrowing binge of the 1980s leaves us floundering and confused. Even more disturbing is the fact that in the 50-plus years following the adoption of the 40-hour work week and 50-week working year in 1938, with all of the progress in technology, in automation, computers, etc., the rule accepted by politicians and labor leaders remains the same, with the addition of "overtime."