Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/360/5923
Defending the 35-hour week
The Profit System's The Problem, Not The Workers
Minister for Europe and former trade union official Denis MacShane has recently claimed: "An obsession with the 35-hour week is now part of Europe's economic problem, not the solution."
But Bill Mullins explains here what an important gain the 35-hour week has been for workers and why the bosses are so keen to undermine it.
Roger Bannister describes how workers in Knowsley, Merseyside not only defended their working hours against attack but won a 35-hour week for all workers at the council.
"THERE IS a spectre haunting Europe" said Marx and Engels in their famous introduction to the Communist Manifesto in 1848. They were referring to the coming struggle of a rising working class, fighting against its exploitation by the capitalist class.
Now the capitalists in Germany and France have conjured up a new spectre, a massive attack on one of the biggest gains for workers in the post-war period, the 35-hour week.
Three major companies in Germany have succeeded in getting their workers to accept working longer hours for no more money. 2,000 Siemens workers were the first to go from 35 hours to 40. This was after the bosses threatened to move production to Hungary, where the average wage is 1/4 the level of western Germany.
They were closely followed by DaimlerChrysler where 6,000 workers were told that unless they agreed to go from 35 to 39 hours a week without extra pay, the bosses would move production to Bremen in north Germany and South Africa.
The third company in Germany to follow this lead was Thomas Cook who also increased hours from 35 to 40 per week.
Now other companies are lining up to follow the lead given by these three, with Dieter Hundt, the head of the German employers' organisation BDA, declaring "the three must become the norm".
Others have gone further, including the economist Hans-Werner Sinn saying: "A 42-hour week should be the norm" whilst another suggests a 50-hour week.
The bosses' offensive is now spilling over the border into France where Bosch (a German auto parts manufacturer) persuaded their French workers in Venissieux to break French law and increase their hours from 35 to 36 per week. This was after a threat to relocate the plant to the Czech Republic.
Lack of lead
What is common to all this is the lack of any lead from the tops of the German (or French) trade unions.
When they first heard what the bosses were proposing, Siemens workers took to the streets in their tens of thousands. Siemens employs 170,000 workers in Germany alone. But instead of basing themselves on this mood, the union leaders of IG Metal, the main manufacturing trade union, sought to do a deal with the bosses. They said, after the agreement was reached, that the Siemens deal was a one-off to prevent production shifting to Hungary.
It was no wonder that after this the Bosch workers in France voted to accept the boss's proposals with very little opposition.
What is the reason behind the bosses' offensive? Capitalism and globalisation.
As an editorial in the Financial Times put it on 17 July: "Globalisation has thrown employees in developed countries into competition with those working longer hours for less money elsewhere."
This "race to the bottom" where the condition of workers everywhere is driven down to the lowest common denominator is not new, it has happened throughout history. Outsourcing of work and the threat to redeploy production is just a modern version of capitalism's crisis of overproduction, which led to the growth of unemployment in the past.
The Financial Times, in the same editorial, mused on whether the old idea that as society developed its techniques of production this would lead to "a utopia ...in which machines did all the work and humankind lived a life of leisure" was valid any longer.
It reminded its mainly business readership that the American Federation of Labour in the 19th century had campaigned to reduce the working day with the slogan of: "eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will".
Perhaps this should be nailed on the door of every trade union leader, including those in Germany.
In Britain four million workers work more than 48 hours a week. We have the least holidays and the longest hours of any workers in Western Europe.
The TUC in 1978 adopted the slogan of a 35-hour week without loss of pay and called on the European TUC to do the same across Europe. German workers in particular were the keenest to fight for this demand with 200,000 steel workers going on strike for it.
British engineering workers fought a long hard battle to reduce the working week in the 1980s, building up a huge strike fund in the process. A partial victory was achieved with the working week being reduced to 39 hours in 1982.
We have to base ourselves on the fighting spirit of working people. For the last three or four years workers across Europe have fought back against the bosses' offensive. In Germany our sister party, SAV was responsible last year for instituting a massive demonstration of 100,000 workers against the Schršder government's programme of cutbacks in wages and working conditions.
The lessons of the last few months are that the union leaders will not act unless they are put under tremendous pressure from below. To do that we need a fighting programme to take into the streets and the workplaces. This should include:
- Oppose all big business attempts to end the 35-hour week.
- Open the books. If the bosses plead economic reasons for relocating or increasing working hours, let's see what has happened to the massive profits of the past.
- Prepare to occupy plants under threat of closure and relocation.
- The trade unions to organise a European-wide campaign against outsourcing and relocation of work, up to and including a European-wide one-day general strike.
- Nationalise under democratic workers' control and management, all companies threatening to relocate their work to other countries without the agreement of those most affected.
In The Socialist 4 September 2004:
Socialist Party campaigns
International socialist news and analysis