36 Hours on the Job

The Working Catholic: UAW Strike by Bill Droel

Autoworkers are not only seeking higher pay, writes Binyamin Appelbaum in N.Y. Times (10/2/23). “They are also, audaciously, demanding the end of the standard 40-hour workweek.”
This is not the first time employees have sought fewer hours. In fact, our feast of St. Joseph the Worker/International Workers Day (May First) was inspired by an 1886 Chicago protest for shorter hours. The Federation of Trades and Labor held a May rally in our Haymarket area (now a trendy restaurant spot). Late in the evening someone threw dynamite. Eight workers were rounded up, including a lay minister, a printer and others. Seven were convicted; four were hanged. The incident gave rise to an annual, worldwide day for worker dignity.
Mondelez Bakery, commonly called Nabisco, has a large facility in my neighborhood. Two years ago members of Bakery, Confectionary Union were on the sidewalk or in a lot across the street, striking over pay and retirement plans. As pressing, however, was their concern about shift length and overtime. Like other companies, Mondelez addressed the side effects of Covid-19 by asking or requiring overtime. This remedy became counterproductive because it created stress among the employees and added to operating expenses.
Covid-19 likewise brings attention to the topic of onsite vs. remote working hours. It also prompts experiments around the number of hours on the job per week. The popular crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, to mention one example, is experimenting with four days per week on the job. Pay remains the same. This is not a gimmick, says Kickstarter’s CEO Aziz Hasan.
Other experiments in Sweden and Great Britain have favorable outcomes so far.
An experiment in Iceland among several companies and backed by unions and civic groups was a success. The employees clocked 36-hours over four weekdays. Productivity remained the same. Sick days decreased. Customers noted better quality of service. Now, 86% of Iceland employees are allowed a four-day week, reports Wall St. Journal (7/31/21).
This past January Rep. Mark Takano of California (www.takano.house.gov) introduced legislation for a nation-wide 36-hour workweek. Even during our so-called labor shortage, Takano’s proposal should get consideration, concludes Appelbaum. It “would be better for our health, better for our families and better for the employers, who would reap the benefits of a more motivated and better rested workforce.”
From a Catholic perspective a 36-hour workweek has a prior requirement: the principle of a family wage. That is, one worker per household with one job should be paid enough to reasonably support the family. (A family may include other workers, but that income is extra, not a dire necessity.) Presuming a family wage is established, an employer will pay a 36-hour per week employee at the former 40-hour rate. (Some employees who can afford to do so might negotiate pro-rated pay for 36-hours, but not from a distorted sense of vocation.)
Second, Catholicism says that a shorter workweek is betrayed if it really means less time in the office while bringing more work home. This caution particularly applies to salaried employees. Further, hours gained by less time on the clock cannot be spent on unnecessary consumption or excess time using screens.
In other words, a change in culture must accompany any change in work hours. A whole/holy life involves employment, but also true leisure. It means leaving behind our culture of total labor. The true purpose of time off is to establish “the right and claims of leisure in the face of the claims of total labor,” writes Josef Pieper (1904-1997) in Leisure: the Basis of Culture (Ignatius Press, 1952). Our culture currently needs “the illusion of a life fulfilled.” But instead of genuine time off, it puts forth false leisure with “cultural tricks and traps and jokes.”
True leisure, Pieper concludes, is festivity or celebration. It is the point at which “effortlessness, calm and relaxation” come together. “Have leisure and know that I am God.” –Psalm 46:11
Whatever the outcome of the autoworkers job action, their proposal for a shorter workweek should not be dismissed.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter on faith and work.