The Other Economic Crash and Working Time

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In this blog, I have been noting how the economic crash is affecting working time. National governments have proposed increases in working hours as a way of escaping recessions. These proposals have been either supported (Ireland) or opposed (Denmark) by the unions. Private companies are also drawing on the economic collapse as a rational for increasing working time, and in some cases, such as the transport industry, attempts to alter contracts have resulted in industrial action.  So what about the last great crash – the Great Depression. What were the nature of working time struggles then?  I have been reading an interesting article by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt in the edited collection Work Time and Industrialisation that looks at New Deal and the Shorter-Hour movement.

In the early years of the twentieth centuary working hours in the US declined. Trade union struggles mobilised around calls for shorter hours. Following the economic crash in the 1920s unions threatened ‘universal strike if national 30 hour legislation was not introduced in order to reduce job losses caused by the economic downturn. Businessmen and industrialists also supported the shorter hours calls, albeit demanding that wages be reduced accordingly and that hours were reduced only for a temporary period. In 1932 half of American industry had shortened hours in order to save jobs. By then the “share the work” movement was growing and both Hoover and Roosevelt incorporated “share the work” policies into their political platforms. With Roosevelt’s election, the move was towards a legalisative basis to working hour reductions. A 30 hour bill was drafted and passed its first senate reading. However, whereas business would contance reducing hours voluntarily and on their own terms, they weren’t comfortable with legalisation.  Opposition to the bill began to grow, an opposition that was drew on a new definition of progress, a definition based on “right to work” and a “full-time job”. Ultimately Roosvelt bowed to this pressure.  Kline argues that this commitment to shorter hours was abandoned as Roosevelt and other politicans came to see the free-time produced by these policies as a threat; the policy agenda moved towards increasing employment and working time – and this policy has continued through to the present day. Trade-unions similarily changed their approach to working hours “labor’s call for “the progresive reduction in the hours of work” has been replaced by the more general call for more work and more jobs (1988: 237)

In the Irish context, is interesting to see a similar process for work today. Rather than calling for short hours, some like the INTO executive, recommend their members vote for an agreement that increases working hours. In this trade unions accept a definition of efficiency, drawn from business interests, that see progress and economic recovery as being based on more hours worked. To give a sense of how things have changed, I've added one of my favourite trade union posters to this post. From the Irish Women Worker's Union at the turn of the century, it proclaims "The Irish Women Worker's Union is out for more independence, more leisure and more comfort for the Working Classes". I wish.

Cross, Gary. 1988. Work Time and Industrialization: An International History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Cutright, P. 1986.