The fight for a four day week

By Ula March

The call for a four-day week is gaining prominence and support in the Labour movement. The Labour 4 Day Week campaign, founded in April based on a series of proposals put forward by think tank Autonomy, is working to popularise the idea of reduced working hours. A Momentum-endorsed conference motion calling for the introduction of a four-day week is currently making its way through constituencies across the country, buoyed by regular articles in Left media outlets promoting the potential benefits of working less.

The policy push has been met with enthusiastic support and, in parts of the movement, a renewed enthusiasm around the potential of Labour’s new economics. In its popularity lies the recognition of a fundamental truth – under capitalism, work is defined by alienation and exploitation. Whether they understand this consciously or not, most people intuitively wish to minimise the time they are forced to spend working to sustain themselves.

It is heartening to see the long-standing socialist demand for shorter working hours back in the mainstream. But the Corbynite Left has not thought through its implications. Socialists should seize the opportunity to clarify the demand, explain the class conflict at its heart, and win activists to a fighting programme which could really achieve it.

Lessons from history

To understand what it will take to create an economy-wide shift to a four day week, we can look to historical trends in working hours, comparing how past reductions have been achieved to the strategy proposed by Momentum.

In the nineteenth century, as Europe emerged into the industrial age and mechanised factory work enabled round-the-clock production, working hours were close to an absolute physical limit, allowing workers just enough rest to return to work the next day. Profit-hungry capitalists forced twelve, fourteen, and sixteen-hour days on men, women and children alike. Workers were left in conditions of abject misery, denied even the tiniest snatches of time for recreation or socialisation.

To combat such hyper-exploitation, the call for shorter working hours quickly became a central plank of labour and social democratic movements in the emerging capitalist countries. Workers sought the division of the day into three equal parts – as the famous slogan goes, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!”. The demand was an international one: the 1866 founding convention of the National Labour Union in the United States was the first mass organisation to adopt a resolution calling for the eight-hour day, prompting the First International to follow suit barely two weeks later.

It was the demand for shorter working hours which sparked the opening episodes of a revolutionary era twenty years later. In Chicago, the 1886 May Day strike for an eight hour day ended in bloodshed and seven workers sentenced to death, sparking international outrage. In memory of the Haymarket martyrs, the 1889 founding congress of what was to become the Second International declared 1 May to be International Workers’ Day. On May Day the following year, millions marched and struck across Europe for the eight hour day. Calling for a ten-hour day, the 1896 general strike in St Petersburg catalysed a strike movement which spread across Russia, culminating in the 1905 revolution.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the eight-hour day was won through struggle and sacrifice in many individual workplaces and industries across Europe and the USA. It was eventually written into law and international treaty at the end of World War I, as part of the compromise between capital and social democracy aimed at averting further revolutionary ferment. This devil’s bargain was to prove a harbinger of working class retreat, but the eight-hour day was nevertheless a crucial historical victory, a concession forced in response to the credible threat of world revolution, the culmination of decades of militant struggle.

Between WWI and WWII, various national commitments to an eight hour work day were subjected to growing pressure, with loopholes and exceptions widely exploited, presaging the cyclical battles over working hours to come. But the social contract was re-forged at the end of WWII; an economic boom of unprecedented length allowed capital to grant significant concessions to organised labour, and trade unions grew in strength. As a result, the average full-time week in the UK continued falling steadily, albeit more slowly, from 46 hours in 1946 to 40 hours by 1979, according to recent analysis by the New Economics Foundation[1].

But with the onset of global recession in the 70s, the neoliberal turn of the 80s, and the associated historic defeats of the working class, the trend slowed even further and perhaps even reversed. According to the same NEF analysis, between 1980 and 2016, the average full-time week in Britain fell by just 2.5 hours to an average of 37.5 hours. This data is seasonally adjusted, and other official sources suggest an even higher average. The average figure also hides lengthening working hours in many industries while in-work poverty is on the rise.

Today, falling rates of profit are causing capitalists and their legislative representatives to lead an international assault on working conditions and workers’ organisations to bolster their profit margins.  In Austria, the government last year successfully passed a new law legalising 12-hour work days, and in neighbouring Hungary Viktor Orban’s so-called “slave law” now allows employers to impose up to 400 hours of mandatory overtime a year.

According to European Commission data, full-time workers in Britain today put in the longer hours than any other country in the EU[2]. The UK has also allowed individuals to opt out of the EU working time directive which gives workers the right not to work more than 48 hours a week alongside a series of other benefits and protections. Last year, the number of days lost to strike action in the UK was the sixth-lowest since records started, and the lowest ever in the public sector[3]. Across Europe right-wing populist parties are rolling back protections for workers and lengthening the working week.

History shows us that reductions in working time do not happen spontaneously but are won by workers themselves. In a period of historically low working class organisation, with working time currently trending in the wrong direction, a universal shift to a four day week would require a truly massive shift in the balance of class forces.

Working hours and wages

The struggle between workers and bosses over working time is one of the most fundamental features of capitalism. In Capital, Marx showed us how workers spend part of their day reproducing the value of their labour power, and part of the day producing surplus value for capitalists. This means that the length of the working day in part determines how much profit businesses make. Since profit extraction is the driving force of capitalist economy, in general bosses will always seek to extract the maximum absolute surplus value by lengthening the working day, while workers will seek to limit it to a length which allows them to have a decent quality of life.

The only absolute limit on the working day is the capitalist imperative to maintain a workforce capable of continual production, thus conceding to workers a certain amount of daily rest. Any additional limits to the working day are socially determined, the product of workers’ efforts to gain more time “for satisfying intellectual and social wants, the extent and number of which are conditioned by the general state of social advancement”[4]. Marx explains how workers and capitalists have equal status under the laws of commodity exchange, so where the interests of workers and capitalists are directly contradictory, like in the social determination of working time, class conflict is the only path to resolution. Through these historical struggles, a consensus is reached on what constitutes a ‘normal’ working day in each historical period.

The campaigning thinktank Autonomy, which in January this year produced a widely-cited report seen as a de facto founding document of the new four-day week campaign, has a different interpretation of the driving forces behind reductions in working time. According to them, the five-day, 40-hour week is a product of the combined “demands of workers’ movements, the ambition of enlightened employers, the utopia of intellectuals, and the predictions of economists”[5]. This, naturally, leads them to propose a renewed coalition of unions, businesses, and government to achieve further reductions in working time which are “desirable for all”, so long as they can be convinced of the benefits. It’s an appealing assertion, but is there any truth in it?

Though individual capitalists have always fought against the shortening of the working day, it is true that shorter hours as well as health and education provisions have in some historical periods been in the interest of the capitalist class. For example, inhumane hours which leave workers no time for social relationships undermine the family unit, and by extension the reproduction of a new generation of workers which capital requires. Capitalist division of labour requires an increasingly adaptable and educated workforce, which can only be delivered by further protections and provisions for education. Capitalists also need people to buy and use the things they produce, for which they need time off work. Henry Ford famously reduced his employees’ working hours so that they could buy and use the very automobiles they were producing.

But far from being attributable to an enlightened realisation which forged a new common interest between workers and capitalists, these examples are proof of how the anarchy of capitalist production can lead capital to periodically undermine its own long-term interests through rapacious pursuit of immediate profit. Only painful periods of struggle, which shape and are shaped by developments in social relations and modes of production, can split the ruling class and eventually force its reforming elements to grant concessions which stabilise the system.

Productivity and automation

Two distinct though overlapping arguments are commonly invoked in support of the Corbynite plan for a four-day week. The first of these posits that automation will make human labour increasingly superfluous, making a reduction in working time agreeable to all since performance can be maintained by machines. True enough, this would be the rational response in a society where work was organised on a socialised basis, and productivity gains were shared out to improve living conditions for all. But it is not our world today. To imagine that automation will lead employers to willingly reduce working hours is to misunderstand the purpose of production under capitalism, which is not to fulfil human need but to create surplus value (profit).

In a capitalist society, increased use of machinery is but one more tool to increase profit: more stuff is churned out in the same amount of time with less human input, the product is cheapened and so is the cost of human labour. The reduction in the capitalists’ wage bill provides a boost to their overall profits, as does the possibility of exponentially increased levels of production. As technology mechanises ever-larger parts of production, capital must find new, previously non-existent industries to invest in, requiring human labour for their development, management, maintenance, and delivery, if not for the physical production process itself. This necessarily leads to periods of unemployment and strife for workers in newly mechanised branches of industry, and a cheapening of labour due to the new excess of unemployed workers. Yet in time the jobs destroyed are generally recreated in other parts of the economy, today increasingly insecure, part-time or self-employed. This is a process as old as capitalism itself. Far from leading to the collapse of the system, periodic restructuring of the economy in response to technological change is essential to its dynamism.

The UK manufacturing sector has shrunk by two-thirds in the last 30 years, causing great suffering and increased exploitation in the process, but it has not led either to mass unemployment – currently at a historically low 3.9% nationally – or any consensus that human labour is ‘superflous’. A study which followed 300 car workers sacked in 2005 when MG Rover went into administration provides an instructive example[6]. Three years after the plant’s closure, nine out of ten workers were back in permanent, full-time employment, many in the service or public sector. But they were earning an average of £5,640 less every year than they had been at MG Rover. Two thirds reported being financially worse off, and a quarter reported being in debt.

Most manufacturing jobs have shifted to higher tech and service sector-based industries, both of which are now ripe for automation too. It is likely that the coming wave of AI will lead to a mass displacement of labour from the service sector and an “economic adjustment period” characterised by mass redundancies. We cannot predict exactly how long this period will last, where new jobs will reappear, or indeed whether unemployment will return to “normal” levels. But one thing is certain – no amount of suffering on the part of ordinary people will force companies sitting atop a new-found pile of cash to share it with their workers out of the goodness of their heart.

Autonomy acknowledges that claims of tech-driven job losses may be exaggerated, and that automation may instead lead to increased inequality and insecurity masked by relatively high employment figures. They contend that “a policy strategy aimed at maximising wellbeing and economic equality could, as part of a broader set of moves, seek to partially counter this trend by reducing the waged working week”[7]. Yet they fail to recognise that those on zero hours contracts or self-employed are already excluded from all protections or guarantees on working time. For them, being brought in-house or securing guaranteed-hours contracts will have to come first, gains which can only be won through workers’ organisation and surely won’t come unopposed.

The second and complimentary part of campaigners’ case for shorter hours suggests that in high-skill sectors reliant on human brain power and creativity for results – consulting, marketing, research – a reduction in working time will spontaneously result in a corresponding increase in human productivity. A four-day week has recently been trialled and even made permanent in a few such workplaces, where bosses say it improves efficiency, makes workers happier, and reduces absenteeism. These widely-publicised trials are touted as a blueprint for wholesale economic transformation.

It is conceivable that this could be the case in a few odd workplaces, as evidenced by recent trials. But to extend such an arrangement to entire industries and guarantee that businesses won’t lose out – something most would surely demand as a condition of voluntary compliance – the increased daily output would have to be actively enforced. If workers are forced to be 25% more productive every day to make up for the ‘lost’ fifth day, one type of exploitation has merely been traded for another.

For some, this may be a price worth paying for an extra day of leisure time, but it is not in the end a material gain for workers. What’s more, in many industries, it will have dangerous consequences. New ways of regulating and enforcing labour intensity will be invented. Health and safety standards will be flouted in favour of faster production or service. Companies which can’t afford to maintain their workforce under the new measures won’t hesitate to fire workers. No organised force in the labour movement should actively support such false gains when they leave open the door to such catastrophic reversals.

A programme of action

All this considered, how do Momentum and Labour 4 Day Week propose to reverse four decades of working class retreat, defeat organised capital, and deliver the biggest single improvement in working conditions for a century?

Momentum’s conference motion goes no further than offering support to the Labour 4 Day Week campaign and proposing the addition of a commitment to a four-day week to Labour’s manifesto. The Autonomy report suggests a series of “transitional policies”, all premised upon a Labour government introducing legislation or regulations. These include the establishment of a new national working time directive, allowing employees to take a ‘raise’ in time as well as money, enforcing sectoral collective bargaining, and enforcing the option to reduce working hours to 28 hours per week for all employees of large firms.

Despite all its recommendations hinging on the election of a Labour government and its benevolence, Autonomy notably fails to recommend the one legislative change which could bring enormous benefits to working class organisation – the repeal of all repressive anti-union laws. So far, the Labour Party has promised to repeal the 2015 Trade Union Act, but said nothing about the raft of related laws from the 80s still on the statute books.

Most crucially, if shorter working hours are to materialise alongside real, sustainable gains in living conditions for all, policy proposals must be firmly linked to the demand to “share out the work”, something which Autonomy’s paper doesn’t explicitly set out. With this addition, the demand destroys the logic of spontaneous increases in productivity and common interest with employers. It necessarily means a flat 25% pay increase for all current full-time workers per 8-hr day worked, alongside strict opposition to any enforced increases in productivity. Companies would thus be forced to shoulder the cost of hiring additional workers to pick up the slack.

For workers, this would result in more free time and higher wages for the same amount of work, and the creation of additional high-skilled, secure jobs to soak up many of those currently languishing in the precariat. But it is unimaginable that employers would join a coalition of the willing to implement such conditions, which would devastate their profits. To draw the correct conclusions requires recognition of the fundamental fact that the interests of workers and employers are not compatible but rather in sharp conflict. Neither the bourgeois think tanks nor the trade union bureaucrats are capable of accepting this, for it would undermine their own role as “thought leaders” and negotiators between employers and workers.

In its collection of case studies demonstrating the potential success of the four-day week model, Autonomy accepts that increasing profits is the precondition for a smooth and successful implementation of working hours. Citing an example of a Toyota factory in Gothenburg, they repeatedly proclaim that profits rose by 25%. The report also triumphantly relays stories of trade unions negotiating or endorsing shorter working hours when faced with threats of closure or mass sacking. Yet in many of these real-world examples the unions also accepted a mandatory reduction in pay or a wage freeze! These are not wins but betrayals – instead of accepting “sweetheart deals” which bury worse conditions in the icing on top, workers could have taken militant industrial action up to and including workplace occupation to maintain full pay and employment.

Any serious attempt at building a new movement for shorter working hours must first reject the concept of gradualist cooperation with employers and recognise that lasting gains for workers will come at the expense of profits. If Labour is serious about implementing its “transitional policies” towards a four-day week, it must be prepared to take action against firms which refuse to comply or find themselves suddenly unprofitable as a result. This means mass nationalisations. But even then, shorter working hours won’t be viable if the aim is to maintain state-owned firms based on a capitalist logic of productivity. What’s needed is nationalisation under workers’ and social control to initiate a democratically coordinated and planned reorganisation of the entire economy. In this way the call for a four-day week can become a real transitional demand, one which is based in current political conditions but inevitably raises the question of class power and the overthrow of capitalism.

To overcome both business backlash and the self-serving manipulation of the trade union bureaucracy, an organised, militant workers’ movement must be prepared to fight back. We can look to the working-class movements of the early twentieth century to understand what will be necessary; we must aspire to the sort of international organisations which inscribed the call for an 8-hour day on banners across the world, not just into one progressive manifesto. In Britain, we can start by building rank-and-file movements within all the trade unions, linking up workplace representatives in branch action and strike committees, and building a national rank and file organisation prepared to defy the anti-union laws if needed. Activists should work to unionise precarious workers and provide active solidarity for all those in dispute with their employers. The workers’ movement must aim for longer and all-out strikes, occupations, and solidarity actions to rebuild its confidence and start winning again.

By contrast, though the Momentum-endorsed blueprint for a four-day week often correctly identifies the possibilities inherent in technological development, and points to the challenges facing workers in the upcoming period, its plan for achieving change remains a utopian ideal, perhaps an aspiration for the end of the century, as the TUC has proclaimed. In Labour Party meetings, the Momentum four-day week motion has inevitably come up against a perfectly reasonable challenge: who will pay for this? The standard Momentum response is “no one will have to”. Socialists reject this false optimism; instead we say – the bosses will pay, and it is up to us to build the movement to force them.


[1] https://neweconomics.org/2019/03/average-weekly-hours-fell-faster-between-1946-and-1979-than-post-1980?mc_cid=1ca4f72e17&mc_eid=2b19cfaaed

[2] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/DDN-20180125-1

[3]https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/workplacedisputesandworkingconditions/articles/labourdisputes/2018

[4] Capital, Vol 1, Ch 10, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch10.htm

[5] http://autonomy.work/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Shorter-working-week-docV6.pdf

[6] https://pureportal.coventry.ac.uk/en/publications/life-after-longbridge-three-years-on-pathways-to-re-employment-in-2

[7] http://autonomy.work/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Shorter-working-week-docV6.pdf


Red Flag is a socialist organisation campaigning within Labour for a democratically planned and owned economy. We campaign for grassroots democracy in the labour movement, militant defence of the oppressed and an anticapitalist programme for the Labour Party. Against Brexit, for free movement. Anticapitalist and internationalist.

If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe, donate or join.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.