**REVISED**: How do you sell labor hours reduction to workers?

by Jehu

Following substantial suggestions by @ChuckBaggett, I have significantly revised this post to reflect his input. I want to thank him for his contribution. The improvements here largely reflect his helpful input. Any errors or omissions are my sole responsibility.


I received this very good question on Ask.Fm:

“how do you sell a 4 hour work day to workers?”

My full answer is too long for the Ask.Fm format, so I decided to answer it here. My goal is to provide material in the form of talking points for those who want to agitate for a reduction in hours of labor in their unions, communities and public meetings.

melting-earth_climate-change_Thomas-Vogel_GettyImages-157581491I think the best arguments for reducing hours of labor can be made by focusing on what almost everyone agrees are the most important social ills of capitalism facing us today (even if they do not identify capitalism as the cause): poverty, climate change, inequality, unemployment and stagnation, and the lack of democracy.

Although it might not be obvious to most workers, the number of hours of labor we perform each week have a direct impact on each of these social ills to a degree that seldom understood.

1. POVERTY: There is significant empirical evidence that the single most effective tool we have for ending poverty is the reduction of hours of labor.

As can be seen in the chart below, the empirical evidence suggests higher wages are correlated with shorter hours of labor. For example, Greece, with the longest hours of labor, has among the lowest wages of the euro-zone countries, while Germany, with the shortest hours of labor, has among the highest wages in the euro-zone.



Empirical evidence for an inverse correlation between hours of labor and wages among euro-zone countries (Source: OECD)

As can be seen in the chart above, the evidence available from the euro-zone supports my assertion that as hours of labor fall (x axis), wages rise (y axis). Those countries with longer hours of labor also tend to have lower wages; while those countries with shorter hours of labor tend to have higher wages.

As odd as it might seem, the evidence taken from the euro-zone suggests poverty cannot be fixed by more work; a great deal of the poverty now threatening the working class can be directly addressed simply by reducing hours of labor and increasing leisure.

At a minimum, the empirical evidence drawn from the euro-zone shows longer hours of labor do not necessarily increase the wages of the working class, nor do shorter hours of labor necessarily depress wages.

The euro-zone is a particularly good case study for the empirical relation between hours worked and wages, because these countries share common currency. This means there is no need to adjust nominal national wage rates to account for the noise introduced by fluctuations in exchange rates changes between different currencies.

If the OECD data is to be believed, reducing hours of labor may be the single most effective anti-poverty measure we have today.


2. CLIMATE CHANGE: Labor hours reduction immediately reduces the release of gases that produce climate change, our carbon footprint and the severity of climate change more than any other single public policy measure being discussed today.

We can see the potential impact of a reduction of hours of labor by modeling the impact a reduction of the work week from five days to three days has on the carbon footprint of the United States.

According to Federal statistics, transportation accounts for more than a quarter of all carbon emissions, the largest single contributors being workers commuting to and from work each day.

Each workday on average, workers commute about 29 miles to work; consuming about 1.5 gallons of gasoline during this 55 minute commute.

We can calculate the carbon footprint of commuters in the following formula:

Round trip commute (in miles) ÷ Average MPG X 5 days/week X 50 weeks/year X 25.3 lbs. CO²/gallon = Pounds CO² emitted per year

For example, if the average commute is 29 miles roundtrip, and the average car gets 22 MPG, the amount of CO² produce by each commuting worker can be calculated:

29 miles ÷ 22 miles/gallon X 5 X 50 X 25.3 lbs CO²/gal = 8338 lbs. CO² per commuter per year

According to the Census Bureau, approximately 105 million people commute alone to work everyday; each driver releasing about 8338 lbs of CO² per year, for a total of 875 billion lbs. of CO² released into the environment each year.

Based on the formula above we can calculate the impact on our aggregate carbon footprint of a reduction of the working week from the present standard 5 days, 40 hours per week to a 3 days, 24 hours per week:

29 miles ÷ 22 miles/gallon X 3 X 50 X 25.3 lbs CO²/gal = 5003 lbs. CO² per commuter per year

A reduction of the work week to 3 days would immediately reduce aggregate carbon emissions released by job commuting by roughly 40% per commuter, or, in aggregate, 350 billion lbs. of CO² each year (from 875 billion lbs annually to 525 billion lbs.)

While some climate change is ‘locked in’ at this point, one study suggests we still retain considerable control over its severity. Reducing the working week, by itself alone, would dramatically reduce the US contribution to CO² emissions and the threat posed by climate change.

For more information on this, see the study by David Rosnick, Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change.


3. INEQUALITY: the evidence suggests labor hours reduction does more to reduce inequality than any other measure proposed today.

In the above study, Rosnick erroneously argues pronounced inequality may reduce the ability of a country to mandate hours of labor reduction, because it would force a reduction in the subsistence of the working class:

“It is worth noting that the pursuit of reduced work hours as a policy alternative would be much more difficult in an economy where inequality is high and/or growing. … In this type of economy, the majority of workers would have to take an absolute reduction in their living standards in order to work less.”

In fact, the author is wrong on this point, because a reduction in hours of labor actually has the effect of reducing inequality even as it reduces the severity of climate change. The easiest way to understand why this has to be true is to understand the concept of supply shock.

According to Wikipedia a supply shock “is an event that suddenly increases or decreases the supply of a commodity or service, or of commodities and services in general.” The concept is extremely relevant here, because in his paper, Rosnick does not into account the supply shock impact labor hours reduction has on wages in his analysis.

This is unfortunate because the supply shock impact of labor hours reduction not only protects wages when hours are reduced, it also reduces the excessive profits that have been going to capitalist firms since the 2008 financial crisis.

Reducing hours of labor means precisely that society is reducing the supply of a vital commodity, labor power (or, in bourgeois theory, a service, labor). This reduction has the effect of increasing the market price of the good (or service) in the market place, much the same as a sudden reduction in the supply of any other good or commodity.

We can model this in one of two ways:

a. According to mainstream bourgeois economic theory, the supply shock impact of labor hours reduction implies wages should initially rise as the aggregate hours of labor supplied falls. The degree to which wages rise in response to a reduction of hours of labor would be determined by elasticity of demand for labor.

b. According to Marxist labor theory a reduction in hours of labor is assumed to have no impact on the value of labor power at all and thus should have no impact on its exchange value (wages). The workers sell their labor power all at once; money wages expressing the value of labor power remain the same, no matter how long the duration of the working day.

Thus, in either case, a reduction of hours of labor cannot reduce the living standards of the working class, but it must reduce the excessive profits of the wealthy owners of capital.

Since, in labor theory, a reduction of hours of labor can have no impact on the wages paid to the workers, and, in bourgeois economic theory, the supply shock impact of reducing hours of labor suggest wages actually rise initially, who is left to absorb the impact of this reduction?

The price of every commodity represent the wages paid to the worker plus the profit of the capitalist. If the wages paid to the worker does not fall when hours of labor are reduced, the entire cost of less work must be borne by the capitalist. Thus, a reduction in hours of labor has no impact on wages, but it reduces inequality by reducing the excessive profits of capital.

Reducing hours of labor not only directly reduces poverty and directly cuts emissions of gases that are causing climate change, it directly reduces the inequality in society by converting excessive profits into free time for everyone.

(Nevertheless, the fear wages would fall if hours of labor were reduced is a persistent concern. Although it is not necessary, the minimum wage can be increased to prevent this from ever happening.)


4. UNEMPLOYMENT AND STAGNATION: Labor hours reduction immediately addresses the problem of persistent unemployment in our cities and declining labor force participation, by forcing capitalist firms to greatly increase investment

Unlike deficit spending to achieve full employment, labor hours reduction provides jobs for everyone without additional public expense, while, at the same time, providing every worker more leisure time and improving the productivity and efficiency of the economy. This is because a reduction of hours of labor reduces the aggregate labor time available for productive employment of capital that can only be replaced in one of three ways:

  1. Capitalist firms would be forced to improve efficiency and reduce waste in production
  2. The firms would be forced to employ more workers to produce the same quantity of output
  3. And they would be forced to substitute the direct employment of labor by introduction of improved machines, science and technology

Not all of these increase employment, of course.

The first, immediate impact of a reduction of hours of labor is to force capitalist firms to produce their products with less waste and inefficiencies. Firms do this by paying greater attention to the production process and greater control over the employment of labor and other inputs into the production of commodities. At the same time, the productive capacity of the worker is enhanced because it must be exerted for a shorter period of time. The regularity, uniformity, order, continuity, and energy of the labor is enhanced as its duration is shortened. These effects imply less labor will be employed in production.

Beyond this, however, the second effect is for capitalist firms to make up for lost output by hiring additional workers, particularly when the economy is operating below its potential as our economy is functioning at present. Rosnick has identified this effect in his study: “A properly designed work-hours reduction may be expected to increase employment when the economy is depressed.”

Moreover, the third effect of labor hours reduction is to increase demand by capitalist firms for the improved machinery, research and development and technological innovation that can allow them to ultimately reduce direct employment of relatively more costly living labor in production.

In labor theory, it is assumed profit is the goad of production. Capitalist firms invest in improved machinery, science and technology only when this investment increases their profit. On the other hand, as I have argued above, a reduction of hours of labor substantially reduces profits. Capitalist firms seeking to recover their profits would be forced to invest in improved machinery to reduce labor costs in production.

This implies a really effectively designed reduction of hours of labor of sufficient scale would force companies to increase investment, particularly in the high paying capital goods sector, and hire additional labor power.

Indeed, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has found that more hours of labor are inversely correlated to the productivity and efficiency of labor. Longer work weeks produce less use values than shorter ones and the capitalists have been avoiding investment in improved machinery, technology, science, and rational organization simply by working the workers more hours:

“Working time policies have long been recognized as having a role in improving productivity. Indeed, this was a strand of the debate during the deliberations on the first international standard in 1919 (Murray 2001). More recently, it has formed a goal of measures to reduce hours in western Europe, perhaps most visibly in Germany (see further Bosch and Lehndorff 2001). In developing countries in particular, the relationship between working time and productivity is weak and increases in output are often fuelled by overtime work. In Mexico, for example, the productivity increases of recent years appear to have been caused primarily by long workdays rather than a more efficient use of working time (Esponda 2001). And with respect to Chile, Echeverría suggests that unproductive or very low performance ‘face time’ constitutes a significant element of long workdays and is the result of deficient work organization (Echeverría 2002).”

Moreover, the International Labor Organization has found that working time reduction has been ignored in all advanced and developing countries, although the correlation between hours of labor reduction and improved productivity is now firmly established:

“When integrated with broader initiatives on skill development, the role that working time reductions can play in advancing productivity by, in part, encouraging changes in work organization, is often missing from the debate, even in industrialized countries.”

If we want greater investment and employment, the single most effective measure that can be taken to force this is a reduction of hours of labor.


5. DEMOCRACY: Labor hours reduction decreases competition among workers for jobs, and enhances their capacity to organize, and increases their capacity exert economic and political influence.

In the United States today, there is huge populations of workers, particularly black and brown workers, in the US who have been locked out of employment for generations. This population, the industrial reserve army, is mostly hidden from view because federal statistics simply redefine them as no longer participating in the labor force. The percentage of workers now defined as not participating in the labor force have been steadily rising for almost two decades now.

Further, persistent high levels of unemployment and a growing industrial reserve army throughout the world market today threatens billions of workers, forcing huge migrations of populations looking for jobs. A very large mass of workers from the less developed world are being forced to migrate to the United States and Europe seeking work themselves. As might be expected, the fragmentation of the class owing to its division along racial, national and other lines, is an opportunity for Right-wing demagogues, like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, to take advantage by playing on the anxieties, fears and outright racism of native workers among themselves and against migrant workers.

On balance, while reducing hours of labor imply less living labor in production in the long run, in the short run we should see higher wages and greatly increased employment and investment, particularly in the high wage capital good sector, as companies are forced to restore their profits by increasing capital spending. A reduction of sufficient size thus should have the effect of drawing the domestic labor reserve and newly arriving migrant workers into productive employment, while decreasing hostility and competition among workers for jobs.

Owing to rising employment in high wage capital good jobs, compelled by reduced hours of labor, competition among workers should decrease as more labor is demanded. This implies less competition among workers and fewer opportunities for bourgeois politicians to take advantage of hostility and frictions within the class arising from this competition. This means improved conditions for unionization among workers and greatly enhanced political power at the ballot box.

Reducing hours of labor is thus one of the most potent weapons the working class possesses to reduce competition, friction and hostility within its ranks that can be exploited by fascist politicians from both parties. By reducing competition, the working class can enhance its capacity to unionize and impose its economic and political aims on existing society.


6. Conclusion

As I have tried to show in this post, labor hours reduction has many effects that may not be apparent to most radicals and even to most Marxist theorists. While there are no panaceas to the social ills of capitalism short of the abolition of wage labor, labor hours reduction is the most effective single measure the working class can compel the state to put in place short of its complete abolition.

We have paid far to little attention to this demand.