This May Day, It’s Time to Cut Work Down to Size


Carlos Osorio/AP Photo

On the assembly line at the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. 

Every year, the rest of the world marks the first of May with worker celebration and protest. American unions that sprung up in the years after the Civil War picked the day to launch their inspirational campaign for a better balance between work and life, captured in their slogan: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will.”

Back then, the average manufacturing worker toiled 100 hours a week. Conditions have improved, but we’ve hardly achieved the eight-hour day. Today, half of all Americans report working more than 50 hours a week, while millions of “involuntary part-time” employees at corporations like Walmart scramble to find enough hours of paid work to survive.

Even Republicans recognize this crisis, with their recent belated proposals for paid family leave. These ask working people to fund their time spent caring for their families by taking loans from Social Security, cannibalizing their retirements. They’re not wrong in principle, just in scope and methodology. Working families just deserve far more control over their own time—and many fewer years working—than most policymakers are ready to admit.

As productivity grows and automation produces new gains, fewer and fewer work hours are needed to provide for the material needs of global humanity. As a result, a concept often associated with science fiction has gained traction: “post-scarcity”—a world where abundance exists with little labor, due to advances in technology, making ideas like the four-day workweek possible.

Accordingly, there has never been a better time to equitably share the work that humans must still do, but at reasonable hours and adequate pay that do not result in increased risk of injury and illness. To get there, though, workers must control when and how they must devote themselves to paid labor.

Reducing the hours in the day, the days in the week, and the years in a life spent working for someone else has long animated worker organizing, while employer resistance to shorter working hours has been a through line in U.S. history.

The first recorded strike for shorter hours—an unsuccessful effort by Philadelphia carpenters to win a ten-hour day—occurred during George Washington’s first term as president. The first May Day strike in 1886 infamously climaxed with a violent confrontation in Chicago’s Haymarket Square; its leaders were martyred on the gallows in a frame-up that caused an international sensation.

Prodded by unions, states and even the federal government enacted shorter-hours laws throughout the 19th century, but these were quickly rendered null and void. The 1905 Supreme Court case that symbolizes the pre–New Deal era when the courts vigorously resisted government regulation of private industry, Lochner v. New York, specifically overturned a law that limited the working week for bakers to 60 hours. The Court’s position was that the law interfered with workers’ “right” to “agree” to work longer hours. In 1902, the National Association of Manufacturers campaigned against a federal short-hours law for what it termed workers’ “right to work more than 480 minutes of a calendar day.”

Where laws combined with strikes and boycotts to briefly win a shorter working day, employers routinely reduced wages along with hours. The very concept of hourly wages is a by-product of 19th-century fights for “ten hours pay for eight hours work.” We still measure compensation in units of time because time and money are inextricably linked, and because employers have spent centuries chipping away at whatever gains in personal time workers have managed to win.

In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act purported to settle the hours question. It set a weekly maximum of 40 hours of work—not a daily maximum of eight or fewer that unions had long demanded—and made the main enforcement mechanism a requirement to pay time-and-a-half on overtime work. Far from being a stick to punish companies that didn’t hire enough employees to avoid having to pay the overtime premium, it proved more of a carrot to entice employees to overwork. At one of the first meetings of the newly merged AFL-CIO, a 1956 Conference on Shorter Hours, the first speaker to follow Federation President George Meany flatly declared, “Workers are eager to increase their income, not to work for fewer hours.”

Workers’ need to put in extra hours was exacerbated beginning in the 1970s, when wages lagged productivity and inflation ate whatever material gains workers had won through collective bargaining. The rising costs of employer-paid health insurance also held down wages, making a bad situation worse.

Our current system—pegging benefits like health care and retirement to individual jobs and employers—warps employers’ hiring incentives. Full-time jobs cost more to create because of the additional costs of benefits. Employers try to squeeze as much time as possible from these workers to make up for the higher costs. Conversely, other parts of the workforce are kept part-time and temporary to avoid paying any benefits at all.

Hence, if an employer wants 60 hours of work to be done, it has two choices. Split the job into two 30-ish-hour jobs with no benefits and unpredictable schedules, or create one full-time job with 20 hours of overtime to get the biggest bang for the buck for the additional cost of benefits.

Whether they work too much to live or not enough to survive, workers can suffer burnout and mental illness, reduced life expectancy, and a whole range of undesirable outcomes.

This current state of affairs is hardly the eight-hour day that the original May Day strikers fought for. American workers once made republican arguments that reducing the workday was essential for full participation in a democratic society. As well, an early theory of the short-hours movement was that the extra leisure would drive up consumer demand in ways that would more than make up for the initial loss of corporate profit. Giving people the money they’ve earned and the free time to spend it has usually been healthy for the economy.

But the hopes of the original May Day demonstrators haven’t come to pass. Average annual hours have steadily crept up in the United States since the 1970s. Today, Americans work an average of 1,780 hours a year, less than South Korea’s 2,024 but substantially more than Germany’s 1,356 (a difference of ten full-time weeks). And yet, German unemployment stands at 3.4 percent, lower than in the U.S., and the nation has similar levels of productivity and a substantially larger middle class. Why can’t we dream bigger?

Our modern problem of striking a meaningful work-life balance is so complex that there’s no one law that could reduce our lifetime obligation to work for wages. But we should start with wages, knowing that they can alleviate poverty, if not solve inequality. As corporations adopt a $15 minimum wage, it’s become clear it’s the bare minimum. By 2024, a single adult without children will need $31,200 ($15 at full-time hours annually) to maintain an adequate standard of living anywhere in the United States. If the wage is not indexed to inflation, it will immediately lose its value again. If 1968’s $1.50 minimum wage had kept up with inflation, it would be close to $12 today and nearly $21 if matched with growth in productivity.

The overtime protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act need to be rethought as well. Right now, salaried employees like social workers and administrative office staff can essentially work unlimited hours without overtime. Obama’s Department of Labor tried to fix this by raising the salary threshold for overtime eligibility from $23,660 to $47,476, but conservative states and business groups successfully sued to block it. Trump’s Labor Department recently lowered the proposed threshold to $35,000, leaving half the affected workers behind. Even when employers are required to pay overtime, it hardly acts as a deterrent to hazardous levels of work.

We should cast aside the 40-hour week altogether—it is an arbitrary and antiquated formula, leaving plenty of room for employers to impose 12-hour days, split shifts, “clopens,” and all kinds of on-call assignments that deprive a worker of the space to be fully human when she’s finally off the clock. Why not six-hour days! Four-day weeks? Would that be so horrible?

But even doubling or tripling overtime pay would not fully discourage employers from overworking their employees so long as the cost of health care is factored into payroll. One less-discussed benefit of Medicare for All is the freedom it would grant workers to walk away from jobs they hate and extra hours they’d rather not work. Employers would lose the perverse incentive to either underwork a large workforce or overwork a smaller one in order to avoid insurance obligations. Medicare for All would enable us, as a society, to spread the work around a bit more evenly.

Social Security is also an important component of striking a better work-life balance. For that reason, we need to expand its coverage to public-sector, domestic, and agricultural workers who don’t currently benefit from a guaranteed federal pension—funding that expansion by taxing incomes above $132,900. Lowering the retirement age would create a better work-life balance too.

Paid vacation and sick leave are also a part of the equation. We are dead last when it comes to guaranteed paid time off. Countries like South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Chile all guarantee employees over 30 days off, while the U.S. won’t even guarantee pay for federal holidays. New Jersey and Washington are among the states leading the way by offering some form of parental leave, largely through temporary-disability insurance. Ten states and D.C. now provide paid sick days. New York City is even considering a paid-vacation law. These policies make employment less unstable for millions of workers and provide needed rest without risking job loss or savings.

The federal government could build on these local efforts by creating a new supplemental Social Security paid-leave fund. Setting it up as an insurance fund everyone pays into helps ensure that workers actually use their earned time off. Those who don’t raise families could use the time off for other pursuits, like returning to school, or even as a bridge to earlier retirement.

In our age of inequality, we are constantly hustling for advantages to meet the spiraling cost of living. Our current work culture tells us if only we got more money or hours, maybe ends would magically meet. Experience, however, makes clear that for the vast majority of working Americans, this time-and-money trap falls short of creating the conditions for a good life.  What really would help is more control over our time.

It’s time we cut work down to size.

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