It may seem a little ironic, but after presiding over the greatest effective increase of working hours this century, the ALP is now finally calling for decreased working hours in order to reduce unemployment. Bill Kelty has also indicated that the main focus for the ACTU in 1997 should be the ‘fairer sharing of work opportunities’. Sounds good, but is there a catch?
50 years since 40 hour week
It is now 50 years since the Australian union movement, after a long campaign, finally won the 40 hour working week. Ten years later, in 1957, the ACTU Congress decided to put the demand for a 35 hour working week with no loss of pay to the forefront of its fighting platform. In the 1970s and again in 1980, various unions renewed the fight, and whilst some sections achieved the 35 hour goal, most settled for 38 hours as an interim step. However, with Labor in power from 1983 and the subsequent introduction of the Accord (which saw a transfer of wealth from the pockets of workers to those of the bosses on a level comparable to that of the Great Depression), the 35 hour campaign was effectively dropped. Now, according to Labor’s own Industrial Relations spokesperson, Bob McMullan, more than 1.3 million people are currently unemployed or underemployed while full-time employees are working an average 42.2 hours per week (up from 39.9 in 1989) with one in five working more than 49 hours. This is despite the fact that Australia’s Gross Domestic Product (wealth produced) has more than doubled over the past 15 years. So much for progress!
High unemployment rates
Instead of reducing working hours, the massive labour saving technological advances of recent years have been introduced at the expense of jobs. Changes to industry structures and work practices have compounded the problems. Unemployment in the countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD-of which Australia is a member) currently stands at 35 million (8.5% of the OECD workforce) and is projected to remain at least this high well into the next decade. These figures almost double when the number of hidden unemployed and underemployed are added.
Fear of social repercussions
Given this, even the more far-sighted capitalists are beginning to worry. They fear the social repercussions as the number of people with secure, full time and well paid jobs decreases while the number of unemployed and underemployed continues to rise and governments worldwide attempt to slash welfare spending. It is precisely this concern for ensuring the stability of their economic system as a whole and the accompanying cost of welfare payments that led to the European Maastricht agreement which amongst other things, calls for a ceiling of 48 working hours a week.
No Einstein needed
It doesn’t take an Einstein to work out that, in theory, for every four workers whose hours were to be reduced from say 40 to 32, an extra job could be created. Multiply this by a million and make sure it is accompanied by no loss in pay and you can quickly envisage the dwindling dole queues, the shrinking cost of welfare. Whilst it’s quite true that reducing the working week without loss of pay and employing more staff to take up the extra hours would reduce most company’s profits (in the initial stages) it would not be enough to send them broke. On the other hand, there would be more people with disposable income, which would benefit consumer spending, which would in turn lead to more demand for goods.
Anarchic nature of capitalism
However given the unplanned, anarchic nature of capitalism which pits capitalist against capitalist, both locally and on an international scale, with possibly a few small scale exceptions, no company is willing to take a cut in profits, even if it is for the good of their system as a whole. History has repeatedly shown that all steps forward gained by the labour movement have only been won after monumental battles with the employing class.
Catch in Labor position
Labor’s Employment spokesperson Martin Ferguson (who as ACTU leader a few short years ago was singing the praises of those enterprise deals which led the charge backwards to increased hours), has been at pains to point out that they are definitely not now calling for an across the board cut in working hours with no loss of pay. And while the issue of shorter hours is apparently to be discussed at the next ACTU congress, chances are that they too have something quite different to their 1957 position in mind.
‘Flexibility’ the catch word
Once again, ‘enterprise bargaining’ and ‘flexibility’ seem to be the key words. Over the past decade these words have come to mean good news for employers and trade-offs for workers. Whilst the ideas of job sharing or shorter working hours in return for an overall drop in pay and/or the elimination of penalty rates may actually suit some more highly paid workers, for the vast majority, it would mean a drop in pay they can ill afford.
The great majority of workers are already struggling on their current wages, which is why so many are currently working longer hours. Given the increasingly insecure work environment, even many of those workers currently earning relatively decent wages tend to take as much overtime as they can in order to pay off their crippling home mortgages as quickly as possible. Decreased hours accompanied by even lower overall pay and/or the elimination of penalty rates, rather than solving this problem, would merely exacerbate it.
But issue back on agenda
However, despite the dangers and limitations of what the ACTU and ALP have put forward to date, it has at least finally helped put the subject of shorter working hours back on the agenda for serious discussion. It is now up to union activists everywhere to ensure these discussions are not just kept to the ACTU congress but are spread to as many workers, both employed and unemployed, as possible.
For a real campaign
Union offices should be flooded in the lead up to ACTU congress with resolutions demanding they initiate a genuine across the board campaign for the shorter working week with no loss of pay. Such a campaign has the potential of uniting the jobless and employed together in common struggle-and in the process help reactivate a labour movement that has tragically allowed itself to appear irrelevant to many, particularly the young. Whilst the big-business media would unquestionably have a fit at the very idea of such a campaign, if properly prepared and organised with mass involvement of workers, it would have the potential of enthusing the grass-roots in the unions like no campaign has for years. The work is available, the wealth is available-what the situation cries out for is some big-time redistribution thereof.
By Robyn Hohl
Originally published in the February 1997 edition of The Militant, the predecessor of The Socialist.