Work From Home. Work For Whom?

During the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of interest in a four-day workweek, as people who had to work from home due to the pandemic expressed interest in exible work arrangements rather than returning to the status quo. While employers may choose to increase working hours (and reduce leisure time) or increase the intensity of work, employees may very well choose not to spend their time in that manner. The core principle that it is the people, each in their own regard, who decide how to spend their time and not anyone else, is an old one.

In colonial America, initially, the motivation for reducing working hours was not so much a desire for having more leisure time as it was a deep dislike of the new working environment which had weakened the workers’ authority thus depriving them of time for family and other social obligations. The urge to reduce working hours cut across all lines of handicraft, colour, gender, talents, age, and ethnicity.

The push to reduce working hours bolstered the labour movement’s egalitarian orientation. Craftspeople realised in the early 1800s that more time away from work meant more time for education, self-improvement, republicanism, and the right of labour to limit hours and exercise intelligent control over its own time. Workers did not however begin to perceive leisure as a category distinct from work until after the Civil War, and they desired more of it. It was no longer about just the amount of money; it was about the quality of life.

But it was not until the May Day strike in 1886 that a nine-hour day and a half-working day every Saturday were secured for a large number of working-class people. Working hours were also reduced due to wartime demands and government intervention during World War I. The 1920s also saw the rise of a growing desire for ve-day workweeks. Eventually, the “Fair Labor and Standards Act,” passed in June 1938, made working 40 hours per week a national law. The eight-hour, ve-day work week was now a reality.

After 1940, workers’ long-term goal for shorter working hours was supplanted by their need for regular vacations, higher income, and high-paying overtime. It now appears that American labour and management have considerably embraced 40-hour workweek standards since the 1990s.

Circa mid-nineteenth century in what are now France and the United Kingdom, the eort to reduce working hours became a primary goal. Workers desired more control over the nature of their social relationships outside of work. A shift occurred during the twentieth century, with French and British employees paying more attention to the use of free time for consumption and pleasure.

By the early twentieth century, all social strata seemed to have developed shared work and leisure ethics. In the United Kingdom, a large Sabbatarian movement backed the push for half-day Saturdays so that employees could enjoy their amusements on Saturday and devote the Sabbath to rest, worship, and family time.

Religious reformers in France took a similar approach to those in England, but were beaten by politically powerful business owners. Despite the fact that their motivations for reform diered from those of workers, the end goal was the same: less time spent at work. Cooperation wasn’t the same as cooptation. The Confederation Generate du Travail in France and the Trades Union Congress in the United Kingdom were able to combine rationales of eciency and moral reform with themes of patriotic wartime service and post-war workplace militancy to win a state-sanctioned eight-hour day in the aftermath of World War I.

The Great Depression of the 1930s and the impending Second World War halted the movement. During this time, new hours laws were occasionally enacted, but they did not become fully eective until after the war. Workers in the postwar era reaped the benets of increased production in the form of better pay and extended paid vacations. The living-for-the-weekend mentality ourished as a result of this new consciousness. Free time appeared to oer more opportunity for personal creativity than reduced job time for modern workers, whether European or American.

In the erstwhile USSR, between 1917 and 1941, the Soviet leadership was concerned with both decreasing the working day and instilling proper leisure habits in the new Soviet population. The Soviet Union became the rst western country to require an eight-hour work day four days after the October Revolution occurred. Like western reformers, Soviet leaders found it dicult to govern how workers spent their spare time.

Food, fuel, and other basics were in short supply, forcing individuals to spend their “free” time seeking for them or taking second jobs to earn enough money to buy them. Women spent more of their leisure or rest on increasing household chores than men, who utilised their time for personal enlightenment, while the fortunate few who did manage more free time found their use of that time limited by gender distinctions.

A shortened workday reduced an employer’s control over a worker’s life, allowing that person to devote more time to do what they wanted to. Perhaps most crucially, people from various countries were united in an international struggle to change how they wanted to spend their time.

Several countries have already planned and implemented four-day workweek trials. Might there be another international or even worldwide, united eort of people for further shortening of the hours spent working? Only time will tell.

Views expressed by the author are his personal & not of Heritage Times

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