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Overworked and Out of Time: a Democracy Issue

The long-shot United States Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has been telling the large crowds attending his rallies that American workers put in the longest hours in the industrialized world. He’s on solid ground. According to the International Labor Organization, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”

Eighty-six percent of employed U.S. males and 66 percent of employed U.S. females work more than 40 hours per week. In many U.S. professional sectors, work weeks of 60 to 70 hours and more are not uncommon. Add in brutal commutes and extensive car travel related to the nation’s sprawled-out residential and shopping patterns and it’s no surprise that hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens face a critical shortage of free time.

It’s nothing new. Workers in the U.S. overtook their Japanese counterparts in total annual employment hours back in the early 1990s.

Why is this a problem? Overwork appears only briefly in Sanders’ stump speech. He cites it as an indication of the nation’s savage economic unfairness: more and more wealth and income has been flowing out of ordinary working people’s households and into the hands of the wealthy few in a time when U.S. labor productivity continues to rise and workers spend more time on the job than their counterparts in Europe and Japan. It’s outrageous, of course.

Beyond the fairness issue, workers, journalists and academics have long reported that the unexpected decline of American leisure in the neoliberal era has taken a terrible toll on working people’s physical, emotional, and mental health. Overwork and the related vicious circle work, spend, and debt are critical factors in the endemic high stress of American life and the low life span of Americans compared to people in other wealthy nations.

At the same time, leftists might also want to reflect on the underestimated fact that overwork and the loss of free time has a significant negative impact on the citizenry’s capacity for self-rule.  Free time is among other things a key democracy issue.  In my experience, social and political movements in the U.S. founder again and again on (among other things) the shoals of time-shortage and exhaustion: people simply lack the leisure and vigor required for
paulstreetmeaningful activism and resistance. Without a reasonable abundance of time off the capitalist treadmill and “for what we will,” grassroots movements for social justice, environmental sustainability, and popular sovereignty cannot thrive and succeed. For what it’s worth, the 19th century pioneers of the U.S. labor movement talked and wrote about the demand for shorter hours – early American unions’ top issue by far – largely in terms of how overwork stole from citizen workers the time and energy essential for meaningful participation in the great experiment in popular governance that had supposedly been launched by the American Revolution.

Overwork is a democracy issue in another sense: it is not the working class majority’s choice. As the economist Juliet Schor noted nearly fifteen years ago, the long hours experienced by “the overworked American” (the title of her widely read first book) reflect U.S. employers’ preference for compensating workers (however imperfectly and it if at all) for productivity gains with money instead of with free time.  Public opinion polls have long showed that most Americans would choose more leisure time over more money. They would, that is, if the choice was given to any significant degree.  It isn’t. It isn’t because of the employer class’s preference for slack in the labor market – the bosses’ longstanding reluctance to face the enhanced marketplace bargaining power that the working class enjoys when employment is more widely shared out (as it would be if hours for individual workers were reduced to a reasonable level).

The business class’s ongoing war on unions – so fierce that the percentage of U.S. workers enrolled in unions has fallen from 35 percent in the mid-1950s to 20 percent to less than 12 percent today – is a strong and obviously related contributing factor.  Organized labor has always been the leading and most effective historical force pushing for reduced working hours.

Their preferences for leisure over cash aside, U.S. workers who receive any extra rewards from their employers generally receive more money, not more free time.  This encourages them to buy more stuff to more “efficiently” enjoy the comparably slight leisure time they get, something that feeds a “vicious circle of work and spend” (and borrowing) whereby people constantly work (and borrow) to “keep up with the Jones” – that is, to maintain social status as defined by the purchase of ever bigger and higher quality, suburban homes, SUVs, refrigerators, televisions, VCRs, vacuum cleaners, and the like.

 

There is no great mystery about what policies we need to overcome overwork and thereby help restore temporal space for democratic activism in the U.S. Some are quite direct: a significant upgrade in the U.S. minimum wage (which would make it possible for more working class households to forego second and third jobs); the re-legalization of union organizing to bring back the labor movement (“the people that brought you the weekend,” to quote a clever bumper sticker); the enforcement of rules on overtime pay; mandatory work-sharing to balance out the work week and provide jobs for the unemployed; giant federal jobs programs to build new environmentally sustainable infrastructure and create decent employment options.  A re-expansion of the American social safety net would give millions of workers income alternatives to overwork.

It would also help workers find the capacity and courage to resist overwork and other forms of employer abuse. It’s not for nothing that you can’t receive Food Stamps while engaged in a labor strike in the U.S. The business class used its influence to prohibit state assistance to striking workers long ago. They know that working peoples’ marketplace and workplace bargaining power is enhanced by the existence of a strong welfare state, which reduces the hazards involved in challenging capitalist authority by providing working class people outside sources of income and protection to those provisionally extended by capitalists. The business lobby has pushed through the dismantlement and de-legitimization of social welfare programs for decades in the U.S. because capitalists-as-employers want, in Frances Fox Piven’s words, “to make long hours of low-wage work the only available option for many.”

The single-payer universal, government-provided health insurance system (“Improved Medicare for All”) that Sanders advocates (along with every other self-respecting progressive for decades) would have an especially welcome indirect leisure-enhancing impact. Besides freeing low wage-workers of the necessity of working second and third jobs to meet the outrageous costs of health insurance on the private market, it would release millions of workers from their current cringing dependence on employers for their own and often their families’ health insurance. Workers are unlikely to fight for shorter hours (or anything else) when they put their own and their families’ health care at risk by daring to resist employer demands. At the same time, single-payer would also take away a major structural incentive pushing employers to extract as much work as possible out of each of their full-time, benefit-receiving workers: the high costs of employee health care, equivalent to 40 percent of total compensation of salaried employees and paid per worker employed, not per hour worked.

Of course, Americans who want more time for leisure and, perhaps, democracy should buy less unnecessary stuff, something that will help them exit the rat-wheel of work and spend while helping the cause of livable ecology.

Sanders might want to pay more attention to time as a democracy issue if he at all serious about wanting to forge a popular “political revolution” in the U.S. (I am on record here with the opinion that the Sanders candidacy will likely contribute little to that cause). As he suggests in his campaign speech, if he were to semi-miraculously beat the high odds against his bid for the presidency (the U.S. election numbers guru Nate Silver gives him an at best 1 in 20 chance), his victory would be hollow without a great popular movement to push a progressive agenda after the election. Such movements require workers and citizens with the time and energy to engage in such activism, as the founders of the American labor movement knew.

 

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Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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