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35-hour week

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From: The Socialist issue 527, 2 April 2008: End Labour's 'them and us' society

Search site for keywords: 35-hour week - Pay - Labour - Unemployment - Britain - Working-class - Doctors - Trade unions - Teachers - Northern Rock - Applegarth


For a 35-hour week with no loss of pay

WITH 2,000 job losses projected out of a total workforce of 6,000 at Northern Rock, together with one third of all jobs in the financial sector going, the shadow of unemployment returns once more to haunt working-class areas and families. This is just the first sign of the fallout from the credit 'collapse' before the financial tsunami wreaks its full havoc - including in the 'real' economy - with broken lives and shattered dreams.

Adam Applegarth, the former boss of Northern Rock, has no such worries. He slides off with shed loads of cash - a 760,000 pay-off and a pension pot of 2.5 million at the age of 55 - while the waste of the dole looms for the workers. This is at a time when millions who still have a job are compelled to work overtime, some working two or even three jobs, many at slave-wage rates.

Unpaid overtime

According to research based on Office for National Statistics figures, five million workers in the UK "are racking up nearly 5,000 in unpaid overtime every year", a huge free bonus for the capitalists (Personnel Today magazine). Go back two or three decades and 'futurologists' were predicting that workers today would be living the 'life of Riley': "more free time, more expendable income... a huge bag of money and drifting around the Caribbean". According to the TUC, if workers put in all their unpaid hours in a year upfront, "they'd not start earning money until 22 February"!

Four out of ten British workers work more than 60 hours a week and one in five workers do not take a lunch break. In other words, British workers are modern workplace helots. They are compelled to work unhealthily long hours because of low wages and rising living costs, as well as forced to tolerate bullying, dictatorial management.

Just this week, the Guardian reported that the New Labour Cabinet Office has handpicked 6,000 civil servants to "'give their bosses a hard time' if they do not push reform". This is code for worsening conditions for civil servants. The 'lucky 6,000' are to meet for a "mass bonding and indoctrination session". It is, it seems, "a civil service version of the television show 'Dragons' Den'", a metaphor for the unspeakable conditions which now exist in many workplaces in Britain.

And it is not just ordinary working-class people but 'professionals' too, such as doctors and teachers, who are subjected to the New Labour whip of longer hours and worse conditions. The compulsion on doctors to work in the evenings and at weekends has nothing to do with "extending accessibility" for patients.

It was a favour from New Labour to the bosses who object to workers "taking time off" to attend their doctors during the day, for sometimes urgent medical conditions. Teachers, suffering under an avalanche of paper and directives from New Labour control freakery, are demanding that the stress be lifted by more "non-contact time", just to prepare lessons.

Yet the British bosses are not alone in wanting to screw more 'effort', read profits, out of the workers, including extending the working day and working week.

In France, for instance, the 35-hour week, granted through struggle but introduced by the Jospin government ten years ago, is under attack. Even when this important reform was introduced, it was weakened by the proposal for 'annualisation' of hours, allowing the bosses to compel some workers to work at any time so long as there were an 'annualised' number of hours worked. Now, the vicious neo-liberal government of Sarkozy wishes to excise this gain from the statute book, with proposals for groups of workers to be allowed 'flexibility' on the amount of hours they should work.


Also, shamefully, many union leaders in Germany have conceded in recent years a lengthening of the working week, despite the stubborn maintenance of a substantial unemployment level. The leadership of Ver.di, the public-sector union, while proposing wage increases, have now accepted an extension of the working week by half an hour to 39 hours for administrative workers in the West. In East Germany, it is proposed that the working week remain at 40 hours. In Italy, on the other hand, five million workers, as a minimum, work in at least two jobs.

The same situation is under way in Britain with the hiring of permanent staff falling "last month for the first time in almost five years as the impact of the credit crunch started to sap confidence across the labour market" (Financial Times). The converse of this is that the number of temporary jobs has grown at its fastest pace for three months.

Historically, the labour movement has stood for a shorter working week. The Second International championed the eight-hour working day, with mass demonstrations in London and elsewhere at the end of the nineteenth century. Yet the alleged heirs of this tradition, a government which purports to stand for 'labour', has presided over the extension of the working day and worsening conditions.

Gordon Brown's New Labour government has acted as a pliable, willing tool of the employers, by following Blair in acceding to the 'opt-out' clause in the European Working Time Directive, which stipulates a maximum of 48 hours a week. It is time to put a halt to this abominable workplace nightmare, more reminiscent of the 1930s, or the nineteenth century for that matter, than the much proclaimed 'hi-tech' Britain today.

In a recent 'scenario' for the future, the Guardian postulated: "Robots with artificial intelligence will be put into management positions. They will not necessarily have legs and arms". Some workers would argue that these 'robots' already exist in the form of vicious managers, head teachers, etc.

It is vital therefore, that the demand for the 35-hour week, without loss of pay - a four or five-day working week and not annualised - should be taken up in earnest by the trade union and labour movement.

Without this, some workers face the danger of being pushed into the pit of permanent poverty, associated with long-term unemployment, while others work unbearable overtime and still more have multiple jobs.

This is an exceedingly modest demand, particularly as 40 years ago Jack Jones, leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union - now Unite - showed that even a 19-hour working week was possible if all the potential and technology built up by the labour of the working class was utilised properly.

Without this kind of measure, and against a background of rising unemployment, real dangers are posed to the labour movement. First of all, in a potential split between employed and unemployed, particularly as the latter could include a high percentage of young people, who have an already high level of unemployment at about ten per cent. Moreover, a disastrous division between British workers and immigrants, particularly recent migrants into Britain, could be opened up and widened. This could benefit the far-right British National Party and other reactionary forces.

Sharing the work

Therefore, alongside the demand for unity of all workers in struggle, it is necessary to develop the idea now of sharing out the work. This is concretely expressed in the 35-hour week without loss of pay as a generalised slogan of the trade unions and the labour movement. Of course, where the working week is much longer than this, in individual industries and factories, the demand should be for a shortening of it by an hour or two, or more, from the existing level.

London's 23,000 bus drivers have given a lead in the struggle for a shorter working week. They declare they are "determined to secure standard conditions on driving time and working hours, in the interests of public safety and our drivers' health". They call for a "maximum of no more than 7 hours 36 minutes maximum time on duty per day" and a 38 hour week.

Alongside such proposals, a generalised demand is necessary in order to concentrate the minds of working-class people on the unacceptability of an ever-lengthening of the working day. This demand also has a cultural and a political dimension.

Life does not just consist of work but the possibility of workers enjoying some of the fruits of this labour. How can there be real participation in society - for instance in trade unions and political organisations - while workers have an unbearable working day and are too exhausted to participate in such activities?

For many, the 21st century - heralded as a new dawn of progress at the time of the millennium - is associated with a lengthening working day under unacceptable conditions. Trade unions and the labour movement must really set the agenda for the future, however, in the demand for the 35-hour week.

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