A Four-Day Workweek: The Time Has Come

Never forget the history of May Day.

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The idea of a four-day workweek is being widely discussed, probably because the pandemic is making everyone — management and workers, alike — question the status quo ante.

Most people are unaware of the violence and class strife surrounding the adoption of the eight-hour workday. Digital History describes the Haymarket Square ‘riots’ of 1886:

On May 1, 1886, thousands of people in Chicago began demonstrations in behalf of an eight-hour workday. The marchers' slogan was, "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will."

On May 4, 1886, a deadly confrontation between police and protesters erupted at Chicago's Haymarket Square. A labor strike was in progress at the McCormick farm equipment works, and police and Pinkerton security guards had shot several workers.

A public demonstration had been called to protest police violence. Eyewitnesses later described a "peaceful gathering of upwards of 1,000 people listening to speeches and singing songs when authorities began to move in and disperse the crowd." Suddenly a bomb exploded, followed by pandemonium and an exchange of gunfire. Eleven people were killed including seven police officers. More than a hundred were injured.

The Chicago Tribune railed against "the McCormick insurrectionists." Authorities hurriedly rounded up 31 suspects. Eventually, eight men, "all with foreign sounding names" as one newspaper put it, were indicted on charges of conspiracy and murder.

No evidence tied the accused to the explosion of the bomb. Several of the suspects had not attended the rally. But all were convicted and sentenced to death. Four were quickly hanged and a fifth committed suicide in his cell. Then, the Illinois Governor, Richard Ogelsby, who had privately expressed doubts "that any of the men were guilty of the crime," commuted the remaining men's death sentences to life in prison.

A subsequent governor, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned the remaining three men.

In 1889, the American Federation of Labor delegate to the International Labor Congress in Paris proposed May 1 as international Labor Day. Workers were to march for an eight-hour day, democracy, the right of workers to organize, and to memorialize the eight "Martyrs of Chicago."

And that’s what May Day comes from: the movement to demand an eight-hour workday.

Henry Ford built on the legacy of May Day [via Ford factory workers get 40-hour week]:

On May 1, 1926, Ford Motor Company becomes one of the first companies in America to adopt a five-day, 40-hour week for workers in its automotive factories. The policy would be extended to Ford’s office workers the following August. 

Henry Ford’s Detroit-based automobile company had broken ground in its labor policies before. In early 1914, against a backdrop of widespread unemployment and increasing labor unrest, Ford announced that it would pay its male factory workers a minimum wage of $5 per eight-hour day, upped from a previous rate of $2.34 for nine hours (the policy was adopted for female workers in 1916). The news shocked many in the industry—at the time, $5 per day was nearly double what the average auto worker made—but turned out to be a stroke of brilliance, immediately boosting productivity along the assembly line and building a sense of company loyalty and pride among Ford’s workers.

The decision to reduce the workweek from six to five days had originally been made in 1922. According to an article published in The New York Times that March, Edsel Ford, Henry’s son and the company’s president, explained that “Every man needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation….The Ford Company always has sought to promote [an] ideal home life for its employees. We believe that in order to live properly every man should have more time to spend with his family.”

Henry Ford said of the decision: “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.” At Ford’s own admission, however, the five-day workweek was also instituted in order to increase productivity: Though workers’ time on the job had decreased, they were expected to expend more effort while they were there. Manufacturers all over the country, and the world, soon followed Ford’s lead, and the Monday-to-Friday workweek became standard practice.

Ford’s move was driven by his belief that well-compensated and well-rested workers would be much more productive and more engaged with the company. He was right.

But since that time, no real progress in a baseline reduction of work hours has occurred in the U.S. 9 to 5, five days a week is the nominal baseline, although quite a lot of people work much longer hours.

But that is coming into question with initiatives all over the world.



In Spain's Four-Day Work Week Is a Game Changer, Peter Yeung reports on a new initiative there. Spain is apparently more interested in the health benefits of a 32 hour workweek than productivity increase:

Companies have recently been experimenting with four-day weeks in the hope that a shorter week will ultimately improve their bottom lines. But the concept broke new ground last month, when Spain announced it will become the world’s first country to trial a four-day working week. The three-year, €50 million ($USD60 million) pilot project will launch in September.

Under the plans, an estimated 200 to 400 Spanish companies will voluntarily take part in the project by reducing their employees’ working week to 32 hours while keeping their salaries the same. The government will compensate participating businesses for any higher costs incurred by the changes, such as the need to hire additional staff or to reorganize scheduling and shift patterns. That investment will be financed through Spain’s share of the EU Coronavirus Recovery Fund.

“The four-day week has never been tested on this level,” says Héctor Tejero, political coordinator of Más País, the left-wing party that put forward the proposal. “Until now there’s only been fragmented evidence and research from different countries.”

Tejero believes the benefits of shifting away from the Monday to Friday, 9-to-5 status quo could be profound and wide-ranging: improving employee wellbeing, reducing carbon emissions, increasing gender equality and raising productivity.

“The key is flexibility,” he adds. “Some workers might prefer to have four days, or others might prefer to spread their 32 hours of work across five days. What’s important is that the idea has been put on the political agenda.”

Jon Stone reports on an Iceland initiative:

The world's largest ever trial of a four-day working week and reduced working time in Iceland was an "overwhelming success" and should be tested in the UK, researchers have said.

More than 1 per cent of Iceland's working population took part in the pilot programme which cut the working week to 35-36 hours with no reduction in overall pay.

Joint analysis by think-tanks in Iceland and the UK found that the trials, which ran from 2015 to 2019 and involved more than 2,500 people, boosted productivity and wellbeing and are already leading to permanent changes.

Icelandic trade union federations, which collectively negotiate wages and conditions for most Icelandic employees, have already begun to negotiate reduced working hours as a result.

The researchers estimate that as a result of new agreements struck in 2019-2021 after the trials ended, 86 per cent of Iceland's entire working population now either have reduced hours or flexibility within their contracts to reduce hours.

Joe Pinsker brings this movement into focus, reporting on companies like Buffer, Unilever, Shake Shack, Microsoft Japan, and many others:

At a moment when the future of work is being decided—when businesses are questioning the value of physical office space and when lower-paid workers are agitating for better treatment as the economy reopens—what worked for this small, somewhat quirky tech company might be much less radical than the rest of the American workforce has been led to believe. People who work a four-day week generally report that they’re healthier, happier, and less crunched for time; their employers report that they’re more efficient and more focused. These companies’ success points to a tantalizing possibility: that the conventional approach to work and productivity is fundamentally misguided.

“We live in a society in which overwork is treated as a badge of honor,” Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, an author and consultant who helps companies try out shorter workweeks, told me. “The idea that you can succeed as a company by working fewer hours sounds like you’re reading druidic runes or something.” But, he said, “we’ve had the productivity gains that make a four-day week possible. It’s just that they’re buried under the rubble of meetings that are too long and Slack threads that go on forever.”

Regardless of any benefits to businesses, stripping away all of work’s extra scaffolding and paying people the same amount for fewer hours—whether they’re salaried or paid hourly—would genuinely nurture human flourishing. It would make caregiving, personal development, and the management of modern life easier for people across the economic spectrum. And it would reignite an essential but long-forgotten moral project: making American life less about work.

We’re overdue for a similar national initiative in the U.S. for a 32-hour workweek. And we could announce it on May Day 2022, as a fitting capstone to what we learned in the pandemic.

Just as important, I hope that we won’t see the possibility of a four-day workweek used as a bargaining chip to get reluctant workers back into the office. ‘Come to the office three days a week, and will reduce the workweek to 32 hours’ might seem like a compromise to some management teams, but it is simply a power play.