Shorter Hours Now!

Against the Current, No. 116, May/June 2005

Mike Parker

Labor’s Time: Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism by Jonathan Cutler Temple University Press, 2004.  $19.95 paperback.

The bumper stickers say, “Unions: the folks who brought you the weekend.”  For almost a century, the success of workers’ drive to shorten working hours and increase leisure time was considered a sign of progress and humanity.  After all, “we work to live,” not “live to work.”

Today, the eight-hour day and the 40-hour week are fast becoming extinct.  On the one side, management has shifted work to temps and part-timers.  On the other side, so-called fulltime work is increasingly defined by compulsory overtime, whether paid at time-and-a-half, chalked off to comp time, or “expected” without pay.

Both too-short and too-long hours become more widespread as unions decline, and with them workers’ capacity to resist the Bush agenda—destroying any restrictions on employers’ flexibility—as in the 2004 fight over changing the overtime laws.

Both the world of temporary, low-paid, no-benefits work and the sped-up work life with no free time are devastating for workers.  We need shorter working time at decent pay. How do we get there?  Faced with a weak labor movement and political leaders moving to the right, we need history to give us perspective on what’s possible and some lessons in how to get there.

Jonathan Cutler’s Labor’s Time tells us what happened when the labor movement was at a crossroads on the work time issue.  In telling the story, Cutler raises bigger questions about democracy, power and direction for the labor movement.  His book is fascinating and informative, and it made me think.

If you are interested in the history of the United Auto Workers, or if you want to know how the labor movement lost an important chance to make history and instead helped put itself in the sorry position of today, you will want to read this book.  Yet Cutler dulls the value of all his information and righteous demystification of the golden age of Walter Reuther, by trying to make everything fit his advocacy of a kind of left business unionism he calls “syndicalism.”

30 for 40

Cutler argues that the demand for 30 hours’ work for 40 hours’ pay (sometimes called a shorter work week with no loss in pay) was the obvious demand for the UAW in the period of economic expansion following World War II. The demand potentially united employed and unemployed.

It was a program to respond to automation, and it had mass popular support within the union.  But according to Cutler, this straightforward “syndicalist” demand did not fit with UAW President Walter Reuther’s “corporatist” orientation.  Reuther instead looked to the World War II economy as a model for expansion of production and planning, in order to expand his influence and that of the UAW.

Cutler shows convincingly that Reuther embraced the short work week demand only when it was politically expedient, i.e. where he needed to co-opt its mass support.  Except during their rise in the UAW’s early years, the Reutherites never led on this issue.  They were periodically forced by the ranks (or at least by opposition political forces) to embrace it.

Similarly, Cutler says, the Communist Party’s forces in the UAW, and the even more opportunistic Carl Stellato, president of the giant Local 600 at the Ford Rouge plant, only championed the short work week when it was useful as part of a political struggle; they dropped the demand at key points.  For the CP, it was more important to move Reuther toward neutrality in the Cold War than to challenge him on his failure with the short work week.

Indeed, nobody comes out of this historical picture smelling very good.  The anti-Stalinism of the Workers Party, a “third camp” group from the Trotsykist tradition led by Max Shachtman, drove its members in auto to support Reuther against the CP forces, and they too allowed the shorter work week to get lost in the union’s faction fight:

Each of the competing factions did, at one time or another, find it necessary to champion the demand for a shorter workweek.  None, however were particularly inclined toward the old syndicalist labor ideologies that first gave rise to the shorter hours movement…  [I]nsofar as they were forced to compete with one another for the support of rank-and-file workers, these same factions were forced to set aside their own corporatist inclinations and learn to embrace the language of syndicalism.  It was only in this context that the various factions embraced, at one time or another, the 30-40 demand and the syndicalist ideology of the shorter workweek.  (177)

Leadership and the Ranks

A democratic relationship between union leaders and rank-and-file members is not a simple one. Leaders should lead, not simply carry out the results of a survey of membership attitudes.  At the same time, all wisdom does not begin with the leadership, and the final decisions have to belong to the members.  Leaders should respond to a movement in the ranks; that is not opportunism, but one feature of democracy.  What is opportunism is adopting a policy because it is popular but with no intention of carrying it out, and perhaps even sabotaging it.

How should officials combine democracy and leadership?  They should try to win the ranks to their views by education and by contesting in elections, but they should then carry out the members’ decisions.  The autocratic style, on the other hand, is to use institutional power to bully the members into accepting leaders’ positions.  In the 1950s Walter Reuther fought his opposition and their demand for the short work week in part by placing opposition-led locals under administratorship.

While Cutler portrays Reuther as a manipulative institutional bureaucrat, it is clear that the UAW of the 1940s and 1950s was a mix of democracy and bureaucracy that compares favorably to the UAW today.  Reuther did use administratorship against opposition.  But he did not have the giant patronage machines of appointed officials, created by the union’s array of joint union- management programs, that modern UAW leaders employ.

In addition to threats of trusteeship, these days the UAW leadership’s weapons include forcing members to “vote till you get it right” on concessionary contracts and threats to cooperate with the corporation to shift production out of your plant.

Reuther’s trusteeship weapon had its limits, as in the case of Ford Local 600, where the membership soundly repudiated the 1952 administrators in the next election.  Reuther was frequently forced to enter into open political debate on strategy and to find ways of absorbing and co-opting good elements of the opposition by bending to them.

Cutler’s concern for power and democracy in the union focuses on the leadership’s abuses of democracy.  He barely mentions the enormous institutional changes in the union’s relationship with the employers that were also taking place in this period: the undermining of a strong shop floor stewards’ system through dues check-off and tougher penalties for union leaders in wildcat strikes, and the conscious substitution of a bureaucratic grievance procedure for rank-and-file struggle.

Key Questions

Cutler’s case for all factions’ lack of interest in the short work week is fairly convincing.  But if none of the forces in the union could seem to find a way to carry out a fight for the short workweek even when pushed by popular support, then we have to ask why.

Cutler’s view seems to be that each force had its own agenda that led them to drop short work week as a priority.  Possibly.  But it is also possible that the demand never caught on with any leadership because it was the wrong priority as a demand on the corporations.  It is also possible that the membership support for shorter workweek was thin and misleading.

Was the short workweek a realistic demand?  While during a brief period in 1953 the Reuther forces actually opposed the demand outright, most of their opposition was posed in terms of “not realistic now but we favor it in the future” and redbaiting its proponents.

Cutler seems to assume that the demand was winnable during the height of the UAW’s power in the 1950s, but he never really argues the case.  I agree with Cutler and wish that he had spent time making the argument.  The viability of a short work week struggle then would not be assumed by UAW activists today, as they struggle to maintain union conditions in an industry now dominated and led by non-union and anti-union companies.

In this current environment, where the measure of a local union’s militancy is its struggle to slow down the accelerating rate of concessions, it is hard for activists to imagine their union even fighting to improve wages and benefits, much less advocating a program of the magnitude of 30-for-40.

Yet in the 1940s to 1960s the UAW was in a unique position.  It had the largest membership of any U.S. union; it had near wall-to-wall unionization in the dynamic and expanding American auto industry, which in turn faced no serious competition in the world.

The technology of the period strengthened the union’s position by effectively promoting insourcing (then known as vertical integration) rather than the destructive outsourcing trend of today.  With the companies able to pass on almost any costs (and whatever quality they chose) to consumers, the UAW was in an excellent position to set the standards for the auto industry.

Had the union made 30-for-40 the priority, there is good reason to believe it could have won. Younger unionists who have seen labor only in its current weakened state need to understand the potential that the union movement once had—and we all need to understand that opportunities don’t last forever; they may be fleeting moments.

Was the “syndicalist” approach clearly the best, as Cutler argues?  By syndicalism he means, a focus “exclusively on the terms and conditions of the sale of labor-power to employers.”  (11)

Repeatedly Cutler refers to 30-for-40 as a “syndicalist” demand, a “market strategy that aimed to meet diminished demand for labor with diminished supply.”  (4) He argues that this demand “was unique in its capacity to articulate a vision of diminished job competition on the basis of less work for all rather than protected work for the anointed.”  (5)

In Cutler’s view, the only alternative to syndicalism seems to be “corporatist”.  “By contrast, corporatist unionists seek a far more expansive role for labor, including direct participation in the management of production.”  (11)

By posing this dichotomy Cutler supports demands that unions can win from the corporations, and rejects those that might be won by political action, say by campaigning for legislation to reduce the work week from 40 to 35 or 32 hours as in Germany.

In Cutler’s world the only choices that exist are business unionism, where unions restrict themselves to using labor power in the market place, or corporatist unionism which cooperates with management and crushes rank-and-file democracy.

Cutler argues that Walter Reuther tended to downplay this syndicalist demand for a shorter work week because it got in the way of his political program to expand production.  Perhaps.

But it is also true, as Cutler describes, that Reuther aggressively went after other “syndicalist” demands like Guaranteed Annual Wage, pensions, and medical benefits ahead of the shorter work week.  Why should short work week get in the way of his “corporatist” program where these others did not?

“Syndicalist” Contradictions

Nor is it clear that the short work week policy by itself would have forced more hiring and thus unify the interests of employed and unemployed.

Without restrictions on overtime, the short work week might simply have changed the 60-hour week (40 hours plus 20 overtime) to the 60-hour week (30 hours plus 30 overtime) with higher pay for the same workers.  In the long-run union struggle, the restriction of short work week to a contractual demand from the strongly unionized corporations would have more likely resulted in creating a more elite sector of the working class.

The only way that a campaign for 30-for-40 could have had a progressive outcome, benefiting the unemployed and low-wage sectors would have been for it to spread—making the short work week the standard throughout the economy.  This would have required a political movement and political struggle side by side with the struggle over contractual provisions.

Indeed, there is now very good reason to question the progressiveness of purely syndicalist solutions, especially in the top sectors of the economy.  For example, one important reason all workers are experiencing the health care crisis of today is that 50 years ago the most powerful unions chose to win health care benefits for their members by demanding them from the employers, rather than by campaigning for a national health care plan.

It may well be that the failure of all factions in the UAW was that they concentrated too much on “syndicalist” demands to solve the problems faced by their members—because these were easier.  A long-term strategy to generalize these demands so that they could be made permanent would have required more emphasis on political action and a labor party.

Indeed, the question of what direction and role the union should take in politics—whether it should aggressively support a labor party or opt for the Democratic Party—was probably more decisive in determining the union’s direction in its peak years than were the decisions about the short work week demand.

What Did Workers Want?

Nor does history show that the members were the champions of short workweek against the leadership.  It is simply not true, as Cutler argues, that the Reutherites had no interest in the shorter workweek strategy.  Especially as automation became a bigger threat in the 1960s and 1970s, the UAW took shorter hours seriously and developed a gradualist approach to winning shorter work time.  Around 1960 UAW the education department issued a poster: “Labor’s Answer to Automation: Fewer Hours, No Loss in Pay, More Jobs.”

In trying to develop this program, one problem leaders faced was the economics of their unionized industry, with the increasing benefit packages the union had won, combined with the rising American materialist culture.  Workers tended to give up leisure time in order to earn more money, often forgoing vacations.  Many worked all the overtime they could get, especially since it paid time-and-a-half or double rate.

Companies found that overtime was less expensive than additional hiring, since overtime meant no additional costs for benefits or personnel management costs (training, management, bureaucracy), and using overtime as needed gave management more flexibility to adjust working hours from week to week or season to season.

The UAW leadership, to its credit, attempted to grapple with management’s—and members’—addiction to overtime, in several ways.  In 1973 the union won some restrictions on compulsory overtime.  Beginning in 1984 the union bargained a highly progressive “tax” on excessive scheduled overtime that forced the companies to put millions into joint educational funds.

The idea was to make overtime so costly that management would hire more workers instead—without creating additional incentive for workers to want overtime.  While this strategy did not, as it turned out, reduce management’s incentive to use overtime—because benefit costs rose even faster—it did increase the funding of the armies of jointness appointees.

The union’s most important attempt at shortening work time was Paid Personal Holidays.  The plan was to add, in each contract, a number of mandatory, randomly assigned, PPH days for each worker, staggered so that each day a small percent of the workforce was off.

The days were phased in starting in 1977.  By 1979 workers had six PPH days annually, and three more were negotiated in the national contracts that fall.  Unlike with vacation or personal days, a worker could not choose to work instead of taking the holiday, so the PPH days tended to force the companies to increase employment.

By increasing the number of PPH days in each contract, union leaders believed, ultimately the work force would reach the four- day workweek with no loss in pay (32 for 40).

Workers never quite got used to PPH days.  It felt odd to have a random day off on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, when your friends didn’t, and your off-day could not be changed.  The “hit days” were perhaps more popular with women workers, who had plenty to do with an extra free day.

(In a union survey taken at Chrysler’s Warren, Michigan Stamping Plant in the late 1970s, workers were asked, “If we had a four-day week, what would you do with the extra day off?” All the women answered, “Clean my house,” and all the men answered, “Party.”)

In addition, the option to work on those days for additional pay was not available, which particularly rankled the skilled trades.  Yet PPH days represented the union’s only strategy for confronting automation’s threat to the auto industry work force.

The Road of Concessions

Sadly, but predictably, when the union started giving concessions in the downturn of the early 1980s, among the first givebacks were the PPH days.  The UAW leadership believed, apparently correctly, that giving up PPH would generate the least opposition, since the bottom line paycheck did not change.  All that was lost was the only real strategy for dealing with the impact of technological change.

This was a true failure of leadership, and also a warning that the membership was not ahead of the leadership on this important question.  Rather, the few steps toward shorter work time were lost because the leadership gave in to the companies’ demands for concessions without a fight—and failed to educate members about why they should struggle or sacrifice elsewhere in order to save what could have been an important building block for the future of the union.

ATC 116, May-June 2005