Free Time for a Free People

Free Time for a Free People

There's a growing movement to add livable hours to calls for a living wage.


Several years ago, I went to a folk festival in Philadelphia. Many of the performers sang labor songs of the 1930s, civil rights songs of the 1960s, peace songs of many decades. The audience sang along, nostalgia strong in the air. Then Charlie King began singing a song with the refrain, "What ever happened to the eight-hour day? When did they take it away?… When did we give it away?" And the audience roared. This was our lives, not something from the past.

Suddenly I saw that my sense of overwork, of teetering on the edge of burnout, was not mine alone. Something was in the air. I began to talk with others, especially with people whose religious and spiritual traditions call for some time to reflect, to be calm, to refrain from Doing and Making in order to Be and to Love. Out of those discussions has come an effort that brings Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Unitarians and secular intellectuals together to redress the rhythms of work and family time, community time, spiritual time. Free time and you free people. Free time not just through the ancient practice of the Sabbath but also through new ways, appropriate to an industrial/informational economy, of pausing from overwork and overstress.

Juliet Schor of Harvard wrote a book, The Overworked American, in which she showed that the promise made to us thirty years ago–that the new computer technology would give us more leisure time–has been betrayed. Most Americans work longer hours, under more tension, than they did a generation ago.

Other studies followed. Some of them pointed out the increase in temporary and part-time workers. But it has become clear that "underwork" and "overwork" are in fact closely related. Corporations that seek to keep workers "part time" and "temporary" so as to pay them less and avoid providing medical or pension benefits drive workers into finding extra jobs, just to keep hanging on by their fingertips to a barely adequate income. Underwork breeds overwork.

Some blue-collar workers are shanghaied into compulsory overtime, working as much as a seventy-hour week. Their bosses would rather pay them extra than add new workers with medical benefits and Social Security. They lose touch with their kids–but they can't say no. In many cases downsizing leaves fewer workers to carry out the same amount of work–and the remaining jobholders work longer under pressure to get the job done. Fear that they will be the next workers downsized helps spur them into overwork. And conversely, the overwork of some–twelve-hour days, sixty-hour weeks–reduces the number and quality of jobs that are available to others. Overwork breeds disemployment.

It is not just poor people or blue-collar wage earners who get forced into overwork. The overwork/overstress reality runs across class lines. From wealthy brain surgeons to single mothers making minimum wages at fast-food restaurants, tens of millions of Americans are overworked.

But if people choose to do it, who is to say it is "overwork"? Anyone who really feels burned out can just slow down, no? Any malaise that people feel is just a result of their own choices, no? No. Treating overwork as a private life-choice, and a sense of burnout as a result of internal confusion and incompetence, is like saying that women who felt discomforted and disempowered in the 1950s had chosen their lifestyle. For many of those women it took Betty Friedan to put a name to their unease and to show them that a systemic and political structure was oppressing them–and that they could do something about it.

I think we are in much the same situation today. The economic and cultural system is driving most Americans into overwork. That system is grinding under foot deep human needs for rest and reflection, for family time and community time.

Among the religious traditions that take the Hebrew Scriptures seriously, there is a teaching: For the sake of remembering and taking to heart the grandeur of Creation and for the sake of freeing both ourselves from others' pharaonic power and others from our own oppression, we celebrate Shabbat. (The word, translated into English as "Sabbath," comes from the Hebrew verb for pausing, ceasing, calmly sitting.) In Exodus 20:8-11, the reason given for the Sabbath is to recall Creation; in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, it is to free all of us from slavery. In Jewish tradition, it is taught that these seemingly two separate meanings are in fact one. Meditate on them and we can see them that way.

And we are taught not only the seventh-day Shabbat but also yearlong observances every seventh year, when the earth rests along with human workers, all debts are annulled and there is free time for celebration and reflection. And in the deepest version of Shabbat, once every fifty years the Jubilee was to bring the redistribution of all land. Thus what we would today put into the separate categories of ecosanity, social justice and spiritual growth were all one process. This unity was best articulated by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book The Sabbath:

To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money…on which [humanity] avows [its] independence of that which is the world's chief idol…a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow [humans] and the forces of nature–is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for [humanity's] progress than the Sabbath?

Christianity, Islam and Rabbinic Judaism have reinterpreted the Sabbath in their own ways. But all of them teach the necessity of periodically, rhythmically, calming one's self for inward reflection, for time to love and time to be. Who will do something about the denial of these needs–the subjugation of human beings and the earth to the pharaonic notion that Shabbat is a waste of time, that tireless work is the real proof of one's worth?

You might think the labor movement would do something about it. After all, the eight-hour day was the result of labor struggles beginning in the 1880s: "Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will!" "Bread–and roses too!" In Europe, especially in France and Germany, unions in several industries have won a thirty-five-hour week. In the United States, however, the desire of workers to make more money in the short run has often drowned out the desire for more rest. But recently there have been some stirrings of interest in the US labor movement in curtailing overtime–often in the hope of opening up more jobs for the disemployed but increasingly in order to protect family life. An example: In July the New York Times reported about rising tensions between the Communications Workers of America and the Verizon Corporation, with a strike in the offing:

For some Verizon workers, a strike cannot come soon enough if it brings about measures to reduce stress on the job. At many call centers, customer service representatives who take orders for new service or answer questions about bills say they are inundated with calls, and that management often requires them to tack four extra hours onto their shifts.

At a Verizon plant in Massachusetts, the plant's work force had been downsized so that half the number of workers had to answer a rising tide of customer phone calls. Result: customers left to hang on hold and workers increasingly put on "red alert" when the number of calls on hold got too high. "Red alert" meant workers were forbidden to leave their desks, to shmooze, stretch, go to the bathroom. Workers, who said they were always exhausted, went on strike over this treatment.

The connection between overwork and undercitizenship was made by Ralph Nader during his presidential campaign. Ruth Conniff in The Nation quoted Nader as saying that today it's harder to be a citizen because people are working 160 hours more each year than they did twenty years ago. Nader, she writes, "gets the most rapt attention from his middle- and working-class audiences when he talks about their shrinking leisure time."

Some studies are beginning to show the costs of compulsory overwork. Reg Williams and Patricia Strasser, professors of nursing at the University of Michigan, estimated in the Journal of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses that the total cost of depression at work is as high as $44 billion. They pointed out that healthcare workers have focused much attention on the workplace risk factors for heart disease, cancer, obesity and other illnesses, but little emphasis on the risk factors for depression, stress, negative changes in personal life, negative changes in the work environment and difficulties in interpersonal relationships. Similarly, studies at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations found that workers who put in more than fifty hours per week are more likely to experience "severe" work/family conflicts, and workers who are pressured into working overtime by their supervisors suffer significantly higher rates of alcohol use, stress and absenteeism.

As businesses become aware of these costs they may become willing to adopt policies that give workers more free time, but in many cases it will take vigorous struggle to win these changes. And here is where the religious communities could, out of their own values and commitments, become important allies for workers and even provide inspiration to move in this direction. Over the past year a network of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, secular intellectuals and activists, brought together by the Shalom Center, have been examining these questions. They have developed a statement called "Free Time/Free People." Among its signers are spiritual and intellectual leaders and political organizers, including Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Gar Alperovitz, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Fred Azcarate, Kim Bobo, Heather Booth, the Rev. Tony Campolo, Sr. Joan Chitister, Harvey Cox, the Rev. David Dyson, the Rev. Bob Edgar, Roshi Bernard Glassman, Paul Gorman, Maria Harris, Susannah Heschel, Msgr. George Higgins, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Rabbi Richard Levy, Marcus Raskin, the Rev. Meg Riley, Sharon Ringe, Juliet Schor, Alan Slifka, Sr. Christine Vladimiroff, Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, Cornel West, the Rev. Walter Wink and the editors of Sojourners, The Other Side and Witness.

The Free Time statement urges political, business and cultural leaders to reduce the hours of work without reducing employees' income; to strongly encourage the use of more free time in the service of family, community and spiritual growth; and to make work itself sacred by securing full employment in jobs with decent income, healthcare, dignity and self-direction.

The religious communities are in a position to do two things:

§ reawaken in their own members the wisdom of restfulness and a willingness to devote more of their own time to being and loving, and the richness of prayer, meditation, chant and ceremony that can make this real;

§ take action in the arena of public policy to free more time for spiritual search, family and community; and to create a real full-employment society offering jobs secure enough that workers lose their fear of disemployment and seek free time.

In pursuit of the second set of goals, religious communities should reach out to the labor movement, the environmental movement, groups that seek to nurture the family and "family values," and women's organizations (since many women are overworked on the job and then go home to overwork some more). The Shalom Center and the Free Time interreligious committee took part in the 1999 Los Angeles conference of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, which was co-sponsored by the AFL-CIO, and in the July 2000 annual meeting of Jobs With Justice, which endorsed the Free Time statement and has distributed it to all its activists.

As the Free Time discussions continued, the religious leaders agreed that while it was important to encourage restful observance of the Sabbath itself, it was the deeper sabbatical principle that needed to be renewed, perhaps not only on a sacred day but also, and especially, during the workweek in situations like the Verizon speedup. The Free Time committee is looking toward an alliance between blue-collar wage/hour workers and white-collar salaried professionals–an alliance that has been sorely lacking in American society and politics for the past twenty years. It would be rooted not in policy trade-offs but in a sense of sharing deep human needs and intentions.

The religious and spiritual leaders have begun meeting with policy experts, economists and labor leaders to explore what new approaches would make free time possible. Imagine:

§ limiting compulsory overtime to no more than five hours a week; making Fridays, or Friday afternoons, into free time, with commitments not to reduce weekly incomes or salaries;

§ setting aside seven minutes every morning and every afternoon in the midst of work as Quiet Time–no work, no telephone, no conversation: time to sit quietly, to meditate, to drowse, to dream;

§ setting aside one week every year as Neighbor Time, providing neighborhoods with support to celebrate folk festivals of their own and share stories, songs, conversations–including conversations about being overworked;

§ offering one "sabbatical" year of paid Social Security between ages 45 and 55 to everyone, in exchange for one year's delay of Social Security retirement pay;

§ companies' offering paid leave for family and community service to all workers.

Are these utopian ideas? Not at all. For instance, what about freeing time for community volunteerism? Today many businesses encourage their executives to use paid worktime to volunteer their services to museum or university boards or similar civic enterprises. Few businesses offer all their workers the same possibility of volunteering for the local PTA, synagogue/church/mosque or Sierra Club as part of their paid worktime. But some have moved in that direction. One tiny effort by a global-reach pharmaceutical company–Glaxo Wellcome–may be useful to note, more because of the company's clout than because of the intrinsic value of the change: Glaxo donates up to $1,000 to any nonprofit organization to which an employee or spouse has volunteered.

The ideas advocated in the Free Time statement might be adopted by some businesses out of a sense that in the long run, it would be economically worth their while to reduce absenteeism from mental and physical illness; to reduce anger, friction and sabotage at work; to build better business-community relations. Other businesses might well respond to quiet persuasion or public economic pressure from religious communities, labor unions and civic organizations. Since more and more high schools are making community service part of education, it might not be too difficult to define it as part of the work sphere as well. Still other businesses could respond to the carrot of government contracts (local, state and ultimately national), conditioned on offering workers paid family and community leave. Since progressive political strength is greater in some cities than in the federal government, pressure for living-wage contracts has been focused there. Why not add provisions for livable hours to those for a living wage?

All these approaches might help our society renew families, neighborhoods, grassroots politics and grassroots communities–like the religious congregations themselves. They would be self-multiplying, since they would free more time for grassroots effort to achieve Free Time. And they would give new breathing time to many overworked people to meet their neighbors once more, renew their own selves and rediscover their deepest visions of a sacred world.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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