How Full Employment Means Working Fewer Hours

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Future We Want edited by Sarah Leonard and Bhaskar Sunkara (Metropolitan Books, 2016): 

As the US economy entered yet another period of slowdown and unemployment levels in the Eurozone hit record highs, an Internet meme called “Old Economy Steven” started making the rounds. Most memes are frivolous endeavors, devoted to exploiting cats for comedic purposes or projecting feminist fantasies onto Ryan Gosling. But whoever came up with “Old Economy Steven,” likely a recent college graduate with mountains of student loan debt and bleak job prospects, was aiming at social critique.

Steven’s image looks like a long-forgotten high school yearbook photo of someone’s “cool” uncle. With his feathered bangs, wispy mustache, and open-necked collared shirt, Steven seems like the kind of guy who used to spend his Saturday nights cruising the main drag in his Trans Am, scoping babes and blasting Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

Most iterations of the meme contrast the postwar prosperity with the straitened circumstances of today’s young workers. Steven pays his yearly tuition at a state college—with his savings from a summer job! He graduates with a liberal arts degree—and actually finds suitable entry-level employment! Eventually he’s retiring with five pensions and going on vacation whenever he damn well pleases.

But Steven doesn’t just enjoy the material comforts of Old Economy abundance. He possesses a degree of everyday power scarcely imaginable by working people today. Steven can tell his boss to shove it, walk out, and get hired at the factory across the street. If he gets fired at the new job, that’s no big deal. He’ll just pick up a new one on the way home. If he wants a raise, he can just walk into the boss’s office and demand one. Steven may be a working stiff, but he doesn’t have to bow before anyone to make ends meet.

Of course, the Old Economy Steven meme is rooted in secondhand nostalgia. Proletarian life has never really been so easy, and not everyone got to taste the fruits of postwar abundance. There’s a reason why a dorky-looking white dude named Steven is used as the avatar of working-class security and agency. Still, the message resonates because it speaks to a very real sense of loss, a yearning for a time when the working class, particularly unionized workers, could expect a steadily increasing standard of living and the sense of security and freedom that came with it.

Steven’s Old Economy sustained this security for one reason: it was a full-employment economy. A full-employment vision for the twenty-first century can and must look different from the full-employment realities of the postwar era. Nor is the call for full employment necessarily bound up with assumptions about the virtues of work and the vices of idleness.

We want full employment precisely because it weakens the disciplinary powers of the boss and opens up possibilities for less work and more leisure. A full-employment economy raises the bargaining power and living standards of the working class in the short run and erodes the relative social power of capital, opening up possibilities for radical social transformation.

By full employment, I mean what most people would assume it to mean—an economy in which everyone who is willing and able to work has access to a job. Mainstream economics, however, offers a rather different conception of full employment, the “Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment.” Broadly speaking, NAIRU corresponds to an ostensibly “natural” level of unemployment that does not place significant upward pressure on the rate of inflation. This is to say, it doesn’t reflect the commonsense definition of full employment at all. It’s merely a projection of the number of unemployed people needed to keep wages and prices down and maintain investor confidence.

The concept of NAIRU itself is an ideological response to the political ramifications of the postwar full-employment economy, where average unemployment levels across the developed world dipped below 3 percent in the 1960s. This state of near-full employment dramatically increased working class leverage by eroding the disciplinary power of the boss, who could no longer discipline workers by pointing to the unemployed masses outside the factory gates or the office door.

This strengthening of labor’s power vis-aÌ€-vis capital is reflected in the massive strike wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when workers sought not only higher wages and expanded benefits but also a measure of control over the organization and management of the workplace itself. This dramatic shift in the balance of power also played out in innumerable small-scale confrontations between workers and bosses on the shop floor.

In one telling anecdote from the period, an assembly-line worker at GM who skipped work nearly every Monday is confronted by his foreman. When asked why he worked only four days a week, the worker replied, “Because I can’t make a living working three days.” Who would have the audacity to say that today?

The Polish Marxist economist Michal Kalecki presaged these developments in his classic 1943 essay “Political Aspects of Full Employment.” A full-employment economy would, at least in theory, benefit capitalists by boosting the purchasing power of the masses and consequently the profits of companies looking to meet that demand. But as Kalecki observed, capitalist resistance to full-employment policies derives from a different set of concerns.

In a situation of full employment, the power of the boss shrinks not only in the individual workplace but also in the economy as a whole, giving workers a longer leash and raising their capacity to mount a challenge. From capital’s point of view, the social and political relations of production that come with it are untenable. Accepting such an economy would be tantamount to unilateral disarmament in the class struggle.

Actual historical experience bears this argument out. The neoliberal order hasn’t been very successful in restoring economic growth to postwar-era levels. But it restored elite class power that was threatened politically by a rising tide of worker militancy and the radicalization of important sections of the historical parties of the left.

At just over 8 percent, the US unemployment rate is currently too high to loosen the disciplinary constraints on the working class, and too low to spontaneously generate mass movements of the unemployed for jobs and income. It’s up to those of us on the left and in what remains of the labor movement to unite the employed and the unemployed, the organized and the unorganized, the secure and the precarious behind a political program that emphasizes the right to work.

The call for full employment should not be confused with an affirmation of the work ethic at the expense of pleasure and leisure. We agree with Marx’s contention that the “true realm of freedom” begins exactly where work ceases and that “the shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.” For socialists, freedom is exclusively identified with the time we spend outside the sphere of material production. We find ourselves through the relationships we build with friends, neighbors, and lovers, the political struggles we engage in alongside our comrades, and the creative and artistic endeavors we pursue as ends in themselves.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, even the most conservative sections of the US labor movement embraced the progressive shortening of the working day and the working week as a core of trade unionism. This aspiration united bread-and-butter unionists and revolutionary socialists, the AFL and the IWW, Samuel Gompers and Big Bill Haywood. During the Great Depression, the AFL was instrumental in supporting Alabama senator Hugo Black’s effort to pass a thirty-hour workweek bill in Congress. The bill passed the Senate but was opposed by President Franklin Roosevelt, so it had little chance of actually becoming law. It was subsequently watered down and passed as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the forty-hour workweek we know and love today.

After World War II, when the bulk of informed opinion expected the global economy to fall into yet another slump, radicals placed the demand for shorter hours for the same pay near the top of their bargaining agendas. At Ford’s colossal River Rouge plant near Detroit, the leftist leaders of UAW Local 660 antagonized both the company and the union’s leadership with their demand of “thirty for forty”—thirty hours’ work per week for forty hours’ pay. UAW militants continued to demand less work for the same pay through the 1970s, when the neoliberal counterrevolution ended those aspirations.

The labor movement had traditionally perceived the demand for full employment and the demand for shorter hours as inextricably linked; progress toward one was simultaneously progress toward the other. Gompers made the case bluntly: “So long as there is one man who seeks employment and cannot obtain it, the hours of labor are too long.”

As historians David Roediger and Philip Foner observe in Our Own Time, their survey of labor’s struggle against the exigencies of capitalist time, the demand for shorter hours sought to address three important goals. First, it tended to unite workers across divides of craft, skill, race, ethnicity, gender, age, and employment status in ways that struggles over wages could not. Second, it compelled the labor movement to take action in the political arena and broaden its appeal beyond its own members. And third, the demand for shorter hours encroached directly on the right of management to organize and control the labor process. If workers could have a say over when to work, what would stop them from eventually demanding control over how to work?

The working day in the United States has not been significantly altered, either through collective bargaining or legislative action, since the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. As the global economy continues its seemingly endless stagnation, it’s time to rediscover the lost history of labor’s struggle for shorter hours. Unemployment remains stubbornly high while the average annual number of work hours in the United States remains among the highest across the advanced capitalist countries. In 2010, the average US worker spent 1,778 hours on the job. By contrast, workers in many Continental European nations and the Scandinavian social democracies enjoy a much larger amount of leisure time, and at higher rates of labor market participation. To a significant extent, they have averted the social disaster of mass unemployment through work-sharing schemes and other policies aimed at preventing workers from falling into longterm joblessness.

Scores of studies have demonstrated that unemployment and weak attachments to the labor force are deeply damaging to the physical and emotional well-being of those who experience them. Ending their plight should be among the main short-term goals of the left quite apart from any larger strategic agenda we may advance. So long as we remain within the coordinates of a capitalist political economy, the only thing worse than having a job is not having one. And as the experience of the social democracies has shown, it’s possible to maintain high rates of employment, shorter working times, and robust welfare states—even in a neoliberal era.

At the end of The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes surveyed the dire political-economic scene of the mid-1930s and summed it up in a single, incisive phrase: “The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.”

After the long detour of the postwar Golden Era, those thirty glorious years in which the advanced capitalist countries appeared to square the circle of economic growth and social welfare, we find ourselves once again in the same predicament. Then as now, the program is clear: tax the rich, put people to work, shorten hours, and build the welfare state. These are the demands on which a coalition of left-liberals, social democrats, and radicals might build while appealing to a broad and deeply insecure public. The current situation calls for nothing less.

Considering the paralysis and dysfunction of our political system, the seemingly impregnable dominance of our economic elites, and the drastic erosion in the size and strength of our labor movement, it seems hopelessly utopian to raise the demand for full employment. But it’s precisely the utopianism of the demand that makes it so compelling—and necessary—today.

The call for shorter working hours and full employment is the sort of transitional demand that has the possibility of not only appealing to the very real and immediate needs of millions. It also raises the possibility of shifting the balance of power between workers and capital and laying the groundwork for more radical and permanent changes in the basic structure of the political economy. It constitutes a central component of the strategy that should guide the theory and practice of a revitalized left. 


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