Bringing the trade unions to the fight
The four-day week will be the future – no doubt about it. The question is, how should we get there? Just counting on companies to make the switch is wishful thinking. Large companies are averse to big changes, and despite all the buzz around the four-day week, they don’t even experiment with it. Plus, we should not expect that they foresee all the other benefits for the economy, society and environment. Three years after Henry Ford proved the five-day week was a successful management practice, only 2.6 percent of US wage earners were working five days.
The generalization to the whole economy has to be coordinated, and for that the trade unions have a vital role to play. What is preventing trade unions from picking up this fight?
First is the argument that people prefer wage increases to the reduction of the working week, especially now when inflation is squeezing real incomes. Pushing for higher wages should be the priority of unions, not the reduction of working time. We should recognize that people might have different preferences regarding more income or more leisure time. The question should be what is the best compromise? The existence of the weekend does not prevent anyone from working. People can moonlight with a second job or use the Gig economy to complement their income. In other words, it would be easier to monetarize the free time with a four-day week, than it is to transform income in free time under a five-day week
There is another crucial difference between the fight for wage increases and the reductions in working time. The first one is much more temporary than the second. Wage increases bought by difficult negotiations can quickly evaporate with one year of high inflation or a recession. Reductions in working time, on the other hand, are a much more permanent achievement. Furthermore, a four-day week might change the future conditions for wage negotiations. By reducing the supply of hours, together with the potential increasing demand for workers due to higher productivity per hour and higher demand for the leisure industries, will create the market conditions for increasing wages. The three decades during the generalization of the 40-hour week in the US, saw real wages increase by close to 30% a decade. Since the 1970s wages have never grown much past 10% in any one decade. Sacrificing wage increases for a four-day week is a strategic move that will place the unions in better conditions in the future.
The second doubt is whether to fight for a four-day week or a reduction of the working week to 35 hours, with a 7-hour day. The difference between the two is essentially the coordination of the reduction of working time, in ‘days off’ rather than ‘shorter days’. The four-day week is a better objective than the 35-hour week because it is transformative. One less hour per day does not change anyone’s life. It does not even give you time to go to the gym. In France, it is more common to keep working 8 hours and accumulate the extra hours in extra vacation days, which many workers end up not using. On the other hand, workers whose companies adopted the four-day week, talk about it almost as a religious experience. That extra day every week gives them time to live. That is why, the four-day week attracted much more attention than the 35-hour week ever did, and could be a great objective to rekindle worker’s movements. The 35-hour is also not transformative for firms, while the four-day week, by forcing big changes, potentiates productivity gains.
If a sector or a country is not ready for a four-day, 32-hour week, there are intermediate steps possible. A nine-day fortnight or a four-day week with 9-hour days, reduces the average week to 36 hours. A 34-hour week could be achieved with 8-hour days, four days a week, with 2 hours accumulated in an hours bank (essentially a worker would work one week of five days, every month). Countries could also use their bank holidays to facilitate the transition.
The third factor that is blocking trade unions is that the four-day week will imply changes in the way we work, which scares unions and workers themselves. The firms that decide to trial a four-day week often describe the moment they communicate the decision to their workers as ‘not going according to expected’. Instead of cheers and excitement, they often get silence and a bit of apprehension. ‘Will we be able to do the same work in four days?’, ‘To do this, things will have to change for us’. It is more comfortable to keep doing things as we have always done, but if we want the best for workers, we must be willing to be part of the change.
Unions should not be afraid of it, and should pick up the four-day week as their main cause, bringing it to the negotiation table, and be able to make concessions for it. In a fight for better conditions for workers, the four-day week is more than that. It is a fight for a better way to organize the economy in the 21st century.