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The End of the Workday | The Nation

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The End of the Workday

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"Work less, work all," chanted the 50,000 or so workers from member countries who invaded the quiet streets of Luxembourg on November 20, as the leaders of the European Union gathered there for a special council to deal with the scourge of unemployment. While the slogan staked the combined claim for the right to leisure and the right to work, its concrete expression--the demand for a thirty-five-hour week (or, in some cases, a thirty-hour and four-day week)--does not yet unite European workers the way the eight-hour day or the forty-hour week did in the past. But will it do so in the future?

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

The decision to hold this meeting was made in Amsterdam in June, to save the face of Lionel Jospin, France's new Socialist prime minister, who had to eat his words and accept a "stability pace' extending the financial constraints of the European Union for ever. As compensation, Jospin was allowed to argue that a union counting nearly 18 million jobless--10.7 percent of the labor force--should deal with unemployment and not only with inflation. Alas, the financial rules confirmed in Amsterdam were binding, while those proposed in Luxembourg, notably against youth and long-term unemployment, are mere recommendations. Yet the Luxembourg meeting was not as parochial and insignificant as it looked. It did put on the historical agenda a question both common and crucial: the shifting role of work in our fast-changing society.

As long as work is, for most people, not a satisfying form of self-fulfillment--and we are not heading in a direction where it will be--a reduction of working hours is desirable in itself. Leisure should provide time not only for rest but also for social, cultural and other activity, individual and collective. Historians may view the second half of this century as a strange period when productivity rose spectacularly but the burden of labor was barely lightened. For a long period after the Second World War, in most of Western Europe, the workweek hovered around forty-four hours.

It took the structural crisis of the seventies to precipitate a substantial decline in working time. Between 1973 and 1996, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, working hours dropped in Germany by more than 16 percent, to an average of 1;560 a year, and in France by more than 13 percent, to an average of 1,645. The United States was the odd country of the Western world, with the annual workload actually rising to 1,951 hours. Since the figures are calculated by dividing total hours by the number of people employed, and this was a period of rapid growth of part-time, temporary and other forms of precarious labor, those in full employment worked much longer than the average. These comparisons are enough to justify Juliet Schor's eloquent title The Overworked American.

But the issue in Europe is not, alas, whether leisure is desirable in itself. It is whether a mandated reduction of working hours can be a weapon against unemployment. While two national experiments are on the European agenda, the Italian one, an attempt to reconcile the center-left government with its Communist allies, is not yet in the drafting stage. The French government, on the other hand, has just proposed a provisional law specifying that on January 1,2000, the legal workweek will go down from thirty-nine hours to thirty-five. Meanwhile, private companies that reduce hours by 10 percent and increase staff by at least 6 percent as a result will get an annual subsidy of just over $1,500 per employee. In 1999, a final version of the law, drawing from experience and negotiations, will be proposed. Yet will many jobs result?

If nothing else changed, the French wage bill would simply rise, since employers would have to start paying overtime with the thirty-sixth, not the fortieth hour. If overtime were banned, more people would be needed to produce the same output. But the equation will not remain the same. To appease employers, the government has promised that the law will apply only to companies with more than twenty employees. This, however, is not enough for the employers' federation, which wants more "flexibility"--that is, the unrestricted right to fire people and to calculate working time on a yearly, not a weekly, basis. (Production could thus be concentrated in periods of high demand, eliminating overtime altogether.) The workers, on the other hand, want to preserve their paychecks and get some compensation for, as well as control over, changes in their schedules. Much will, naturally, depend on the general economic climate and on each side's bargaining power. In Germany, where some industries have introduced a shorter workweek, the engineers of the mighty IG Metall union began their drive for a thirty-five-hour week in 1984 and unquestionably saved many jobs in the process. Since then, however, the economic situation has altered and unions are, at least for now, on the defensive.

Indeed, it is remarkable to what extent labor relations, conflictual by their very nature, are determined by the balance of power between the protagonists. "The end of work,'' to borrow another fashionable title, is obviously a metaphor, since we live in a system that, while destroying some jobs in its search for a surplus, must then, seeking profit, create others. On the world scale, employment is rising, not falling. The metaphor refers to a certain conception of work, elaborated during the so-called golden age, the years of unprecedented expansion after the war. What we are actually witnessing is the end of an illusion, of the belief born during that era in a capitalism with a human face providing steady employment, rising living standards and the prospect of social advancement for the next generation. It is this vision of work and society that is now being shattered.

Two trends, or rather two phases, can be distinguished in the postwar transformation of work. The first, in Western Europe, involved the disappearance of the peasant and the gradual shift from manufacturing to services, but also the mass entry of women and immigrants into the labor market. Then, spurred by the seventies structural crisis, the pace of the process so quickened as to change its very nature. With production slowing down, the rate of profit declining and resistance growing in the factories, the system, feeling threatened, fought back. At first, it did so with some hesitation, which resulted in a bout of stagflation.

By the eighties, however, the offensive was in full swing. Everything was used changes in labor law, union-bashing, deregulation, privatization. Once the opponent weakened, methods inspired by the Japanese could be introduced not only lean production at the core but also the farming out of jobs to directly or indirectly controlled subsidiaries, where unions were weaker and social benefits lower or both were nonexistent. "Downsizing," "outsourcing,)) "re-engineering" were the buzzwords of this unfinished transition. Technological innovations--computerized means of communication and control--played their part in the transformation, but as in the case of globalization, they were the instruments and not the source of the new policy.

Nor was this policy imposed simultaneously throughout the Western world. President Reagan defeated the air traffic controllers' union in 1981 and the miners' strike in Britain was fought in 1984-85, whereas cost-of-living wage guarantees in Italy were abolished only in 1986. Yet all were battles in the same war, and capital's offensive proved successful. Within a short spell labor was on the defensive the world over, and there was an important shift in national incomes from wages to profits.

Labor, capital, wages, profits--some readers may object that today's reality is being examined here through yesterday's spectacles. But if class analysis is unfashionable in some leftish quarters, the same cannot be said of the other side. Take, for instance, the debate inaugurated last year by the Federal Reserve Board's Alan Greenspan, who pondered whether the boom should be halted by a rise in interest rates or should be allowed to proceed. At the heart of that unfinished discussion was the question whether, with unions weakened and workers feeling insecure, it was possible for there to be a lower rate of unemployment without provoking serious wage pressures. This was not merely class analysis. It was an open admission that the primary purpose of monetary policy is to keep wages down.

American big business, stronger than its European counterpart, can occasionally afford to be more candid. Both, however, belong to the same species, and their differences and similarities should, therefore, be defined very clearly. Thus, in Western Europe, we are told ad nauseam to copy the latest U.S. model because it is the only one capable of delivering jobs. In fact, this has nothing to do with the latest model. Statistics show that throughout the postwar period employment rose at a much faster rate in the United States than in Europe (while the opposite was true for productivity); this did not matter during the golden age, because the exceptionally fast pace of growth kept European unemployment at a very low level.

On the other hand, we in Europe should not assume that we are immune to U.S. infections-that the "working poor," for instance, are an exclusively U.S. phenomenon. A report just published in Paris shows that between 1983 and 1997 the proportion of French workers earning low pay (less than two-thirds of the median wage, i.e., less than $825 a month) went up by nearly half, exceeding 15 percent of the work force. This was entirely because of the increase in the number of those with very low pay (less than half the median, or less than $619 a month), whose share climbed from 5 percent to 10 percent of the total. This impoverishment, coupled with the rapid spread of part-time labor, speeded up the process of polarization. In 1983 the wages of the top 10 percent were 2.8 times higher than those of the bottom 10 percent; by 1997 they were four times higher.

If, suffering from the same disease, we are simply less affected so far because of the greater popular resistance in Europe, then Jospin's chances of curing it with a mild treatment do not look very good. On the surface, the Luxembourg meeting confirmed this impression. Although the conference was staged to please the French prime minister, its mood was dominated by Tony Blair, Bill Clinton's British clone. True, the euphemism "flexibility" was used parsimoniously at this meeting, simply because everybody now understands it to mean the method by which workers are stripped of their last shred of protection. It was replaced by its latest British synonym--"employability." The conference really discussed how to prepare working people, particularly the young and those closer to retirement, for low-wage, private-sector employment.

One must be careful in making comparisons between the two new emblematic figures of the Western European left, Jospin and Blair. Although they do not really differ in their views of the nature of our society--long gone are the days when the French Socialists talked of "a break with capitalism"--they spring from different political traditions as well as contrasting recent history. Blair is Margaret Thatcher's heir, comfortable with his heritage, which he merely wants to touch up. Jospin, however, owes his lucky electoral victory to a protest movement that openly rejected Thatcher's credo that there is no alternative to our system, and he must take that into account. He talks and acts as if he believed that latter-day capitalism can be combined with decent social benefits, a degree of security and bright prospects for children--as if he still thought that the illusions of the golden age were real. In other words, he wants capitalism, but not its logical consequences.

A policy based on a contradiction is usually doomed. However, the contradiction can also be resolved and thus lead to progress. On the world scale, our system suddenly looks quite vulnerable. Weakened by the Asian infection, it may be less resistant to the French flu of popular protest. In Western Europe--now almost certain to have a single currency-financial mergers across frontiers, involving battles between giant banks and insurance companies, are the latest symptom. Workers will have to respond to this unification of big business. On its own, the thirty-five-hour or even the thirty-hour week is not a sufficient response. But if the campaign, initiated in France and Italy, spreads to other countries and encompasses related issues, it may gather momentum. As they step up their defensive action, the working people of Europe are bound to discover that to preserve or recover rights they once took for granted they must now fight harder and move farther.

Which brings us back to the original question about the right to work and the right to leisure. The utopian solution is to reduce dirty, dangerous, dreary work so as to gradually remove the border between labor and leisure. It could be argued that in the advanced Western countries, we have reached the technological means to do so. The terrible paradox is that, for us, technological progress has had the opposite effect: It exacerbates, rather than solves, the problem of work. It brings unemployment, polarization or both.

We shall not be able to cope with the problem as long as we stick to a system in which production is driven forward, oblivious of ecological consequences, by the expansion of capital in search of profit. We must invent one in which the objectives of production are set by genuine social needs democratically determined by the producers and the people. The real Luxemburg message is still Rosa's: If you want to change life, you have to reshape your society.

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