Published on
the Bangor Daily News (Maine)

Working Hours and Progressive Politics

Recently Maine's United States senators disagreed over legislation that would limit the number of workers who can qualify for the standard time and a half overtime compensation. The outcome of Bush administration efforts to alter overtime rules will be decided in a game of chicken between the White House and the Congress. But the larger issue of overtime and working hours will remain a bitter-ly contested issue for the foreseeable future. This debate needs to be considered in a broader historical context.

The business community is adamant in its determination to limit workers' rights to overtime pay. Businesses maintain that they need more flexibility if they are to compete in the global economy. In addition to excluding many blue and white-collar workers from overtime pay, business now wants the right to require workers to accept compensatory time off instead of time and a half overtime.

Unfortunately, the flexibility that business demands will not be extended to workers. Workers will have no choice as to whether to accept compensatory time or increased monetary compensation. The employer would determine even the days when compensatory time is to be taken. Should that employer go bankrupt in the intervening time the worker is left without compensation for extra hours of work.

Is such an extraordinary grant of discretionary authority necessary for this economy? The history of struggles over the working day suggests otherwise. In the 1920s and '30s, U.S. unions fought to establish first the 48-hour and then the 40-hour week. They argued that reasonable hours limitations would tighten labor market by preventing management from endlessly stretching working hours for key personnel. Their concerns, however, were not merely monetary. Endless hours of work limited opportunities for creative leisure, civic participation, and family time.

The standard working week for most Americans shrank considerably in the '50s and '60s. Far from making the U.S. economy unproductive, these years were the heyday of American capitalism. Other factors besides hours of work were involved. Nonetheless, it is hard to argue that reduction in working hours had a detrimental effect on workplace quality or productivity.

In an international context, the same argument is advanced today. In Western Europe, France especially has been a target of business community abuse for its late-nineties reduction of the standard workweek to 35 hours. Yet despite the business press' insistence that a limited workweek would render France uncompetitive, recent International Labor Organization statistics confirm that France is doing extraordinarily well. Norway, France, and Belgium now lead the world in absolute levels of worker productivity. Not coincidentally these three nations are characterized by an active politics around issues of working hours.

A number of circumstances make this a propitious time for labor unions, liberal Democrats, feminists and progressives to advocate more worker and family- friendly approaches to overtime. With a sluggish economy making only tentative moves toward full recovery, it is especially important that employers not respond to improvements in the market by seeking to stretch the hours of already overworked personnel. Not only will such a course be unjust to those workers, it will also leave a pool of unemployed workers whose tenuous fiscal circumstances will decrease consumer demand and slow the pace of recovery.

The United States is the most workaholic society in the advanced industrial world. Political and business leaders devote too little attention to the social consequences of the long working hours and even forced overtime many private employers impose on working men and women. For most workers, simply getting another job is not an option. Social policy must intervene. In his recent book, "How Class Works," Columbia University sociologist Stanley Aronowitz asks us to "imagine what a society would be like if businesses recognized as legitimate the needs to maintain a quality family and personal life. The 8- to 10- or 12-hour day many industrial and intellectual workers are obligated to endure would be out of the question. Where both partners participated in paid labor the waged working day would be sharply curtailed.

Both partners would have the prerogative of leaving their job as a matter of right when a child becomes ill or needed to be picked up from school early. In short think of radical change as consisting in social arrangements in which the job is subordinate to life."

We are a long way from such a world. The standard wisdom is that such a scenario is too radical for Americans. Yet neither social policy nor the private market gives many workers the opportunity to make choices. At the very least social policy must expand the choices American workers enjoy. The Bush administration has presented a very radical attack on even limited forms of workplace protection. Progressives need to do more than block these. They must respond with imaginative agendas of their own if they are to build the coalitions that can transform our politics.

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John Buell

John Buell

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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