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Time for Bread and Roses

Lack of free time is an issue that crosses the ideological divide. Once, progressives fought against time poverty; now that it's worse than ever, shouldn't the banner be raised again?
 
 
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No doubt about it, the next few years will not be easy ones for American progressives. The Republican Party's perceived "mandate" is likely to produce increased international belligerence and militarism, further attacks on the social safety net, increasing inequality and sharply weakened environmental protection. With so many fronts to fight back on, it will be tempting to concentrate on stopping the bleeding.

But while necessary, such reactive "tourniquet" politics are not sufficient to begin turning America around. It's high time that progressives find ways to inspire moderates. This doesn't mean "moving to the center;" it means listening to what matters to Americans and offering new, imaginative solutions – proactive, "strategic initiatives," as George Lakoff calls them in his new, thought-provoking best-seller, "Don't Think of an Elephant!"

So, where to begin? What kinds of things that matter most to Americans have progressives failed to listen and respond to? In my view, "time poverty" ranks near the top. Back in July, during an appearance on PBS' NOW with Bill Moyers, Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz observed that a majority of "swing" voters were working women with young children. Luntz said his focus groups revealed that "lack of free time" is the number one issue with these voters. "The issue of time matters to them more than anything else in life," Luntz declared.

Luntz has identified an issue that could be dynamite. Most Americans, not only mothers, feel increasingly time crunched. The Wall Street Journal confirmed that Americans are working 20% longer today than in 1970, while work-time has declined in other industrial countries. A recent poll released by the Center for a New American Dream found 88% of Americans agreeing that "working too many hours results in not having enough time to spend with families." Half say they're willing to sacrifice some pay for more time.

Another poll commissioned by Hilton Hotels found that only 23 percent of Americans come to work refreshed on Mondays. Our vacations are disappearing – a recent Harris survey found that 37% of women earning less than $40,000 a year (and 28% of all working women) receive no paid vacation at all. On average, Americans work nearly nine weeks (350 hours) more each year than western Europeans.

American public policies protecting our family and personal time fall far short of those in other countries. A study released in last June by the Harvard School of Public Health, covering 168 of the world's nations concluded that "the United States lags dramatically behind all high-income countries, as well as many middle- and low-income countries when it comes to public policies designed to guarantee adequate working conditions for families." The study found that:

  • 163 of 168 countries guarantee paid leave for mothers in connection with childbirth. 45 countries offer such leave to fathers. The U.S. does neither.
  • 139 countries guarantee paid sick leave. The U.S. does not.
  • 96 countries guarantee paid annual (vacation) leave. The U.S. does not.
  • 84 countries have laws that fix a maximum limit on the workweek. The U.S. does not.
  • 37 countries guarantee parents paid time off when children are sick. The U.S. does not.

In a new study [ PDF], the National Association of Working Women documents what happens to workers without paid sick days. Many report losing a job when a child breaks an arm, or being forced to serve food while sick with the flu. Half of all American workers and three out of four low-wage workers have no paid sick leave. Only one in six part-timers has any paid sick leave.

Is it any wonder that stress and burnout is rampant in America, and that working women with children feel as Luntz says they do? Time is a family value. Marriage, friendship, children, community involvement, environmental stewardship and civic participation all suffer from our lack of free time. But what can be done about this burning issue? "Right now," Frank Luntz says, "no one has created an agenda, what I would call the Free Time Agenda. So it's up for grabs."

Neither American political party has addressed the issue in any serious way. In campaign speeches, President Bush said he'd "help American families keep more of something they never have enough of – time: time to play with their children; time to go to Little League games or Girl Scout meetings; time to care for elderly parents; time to go to class to improve their lives."

But what Bush has actually proposed – replacing overtime pay with "comp" time – leaves the decision regarding when workers must put in hours to their employers, and is likely to encourage, not discourage, more employer demands for overtime work. On the other hand, until now progressives haven't offered any "Free Time Agenda" at all, thus conceding an essential issue to their opponents.

So what might a real agenda for free time look like? A new "It's About Time" coalition including the organizations Take Back Your Time, Work to Live, and Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights, has proposed a six-point "Time to Care" public policy initiative that would:

  • Guarantee paid childbirth leave for all parents. Today, only 40% of Americans are able to take advantage of the 12 weeks of unpaid leave provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.
  • Guarantee at least one week of paid sick leave for all workers.
  • Guarantee at least three weeks of paid annual vacation leave for all workers.
  • Place a limit on the amount of compulsory overtime work that an employer can impose, with the goal being to give employees the right to accept or refuse overtime work.
  • Make it easier for Americans to choose part-time work by enacting hourly wage parity and protection of promotions and pro-rated benefits for part-time workers.
  • Make Election Day a holiday, with the understanding that Americans need time for civic and political participation.

Each of these legislative points, if adopted, would only bring the US closer to standards already in place in most other industrial countries, and in many poor countries. But they would be a great start in the right direction, the beginning of a true "time to care" agenda.

"Time to Care" is, I believe, a clear example of the kind of proactive "strategic initiative" that George Lakoff suggests is central to revitalizing the progressive movement in America. In "Don't Think of an Elephant!" Lakoff describes a strategic initiative as "a plan in which a change in one carefully chosen issue area has automatic effects over many, many, many other issue areas."

"Unlike the right," Lakoff writes, "the left does not think strategically. We think issue by issue. We generally do not try to figure out what minimal change we can enact that will have effects across many issues." He suggests initiatives like the "New Apollo" alternative energy plan that would create jobs, improve health, clean up the environment and make the US less dependent on foreign oil.

But while New Apollo is a terrific idea, energy is not nearly as deeply felt a concern for middle-America as time poverty. A bold campaign for "Time to Care" would be:

A family and children's issue: Time is a family value.
A community building and civic participation issue
An environmental issue: Studies show overworked Americans are less likely to recycle, more likely to use throwaways, etc.
A health issue: Lack of time for exercise and proper diets leads to obesity, while workplace stress now costs the economy more than $300 billion a year.
A women's issue: More and more mothers now feel they have to choose between children and career.
A religious and spiritual issue: Fewer of us have time for reflection and spirituality, and, while not explicitly endorsing the "Time to Care Agenda," the Massachusetts Council of Churches has made time a priority concern.
A justice issue: Poor and minority Americans are least likely to have paid leave and other protections on their time.
A quality of life issue: Giving Americans a real chance to choose simpler, less materialistic lifestyles.
A jobs issue: Reducing overwork for many Americans could result in more work for others who need it.

And so on...

This initiative has the power to connect progressives with many Americans – including family values conservatives – to whom they seldom talk. It also has positive implications for the economy. Shortening work time and providing more time for leisure will mean happier, healthier and more efficient workers. Reducing the stress of overwork would also mean lower health care costs for all Americans.

Moreover, the struggle against time poverty would open new discussions of such issues as living wages (for those who must work excessive hours just to meet the most basic needs), and universal health care (many workers are afraid that if they ask for shorter hours they will lose health care benefits, while our current employer-based health system encourages businesses to hire fewer workers and make them work longer hours).

Once, led by organized labor and enlightened church leaders, American progressives were champions for more time. When thousands of women textile workers walked out of the mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts during the great strike of 1912, they carried signs that read: We Want Bread, and Roses Too.

Bread and roses, symbols of the two important sides of life: bread, the money to live, and roses, the time to enjoy life – higher wages and shorter hours. But somewhere along the line, we got "bread and butter" unionism focused solely on wages. The roses were left to wilt.

Yet Americans need roses now more than ever. They are telling us they're tired and want time to live. We should speak boldly, and in clear moral language, for their right to time, for their right to roses. We could live better as Americans by working less, and finding more time for the things that matter most – family, friends, community, and health – instead of being obsessed with material products and economic growth.

It's all a matter of values.

John de Graaf is the editor of Take Back Your Time, and National Coordinator of the Take Back Your Time campaign.