Arguments for a shorter working week – Letter to The Guardian
20 October 2021 / Blog
The Guardian article (The big idea: should we work less?, 11 October) was an interesting and compelling argument for shorter working time. It is a discussion that is timely given the twin challenges of decarbonisation and greater automation that many workers face, but it is also long overdue. A report carried out by the New Economics Foundation for the Confederation of Shipbuilding & Engineering Unions (CSEU) showed that working time had been on a steady downwards curve in the UK from 1918 until the early 1980s, with productivity steadily improving at the same time. As working time froze, productivity also stagnated and the results are plain to see in our current supply crises and labour shortages.
The CSEU led the last major campaign to reduce working time – “The Drive For 35” – in the engineering sector in 1989-90. Hundreds of thousands of union members were involved in building a strike fund that was used to pay workers striking in 12 target companies, sometimes for months at a time. The dispute ended when employers conceded a 37-hour week – a reduction of two hours without loss of pay. This quickly became the norm across the whole UK economy.
We are preparing for a new campaign on working time, but this time our focus will be on tackling the UK’s productivity crisis. Where workers are empowered to improve the jobs they do, massive strides can be made in productivity. After all, workers know what holds them back and how their job could be done more efficiently. Trade unions embracing this and leading a collective bargaining drive to improve productivity could be the key to unlocking shorter working time and meeting the challenges a low-carbon, digitised economy bring. Hopefully, this is an agenda that employers and government would also welcome, but if not, it is a fight that unions should take on, inspired by our past while looking to the future.
Ian Waddell, General Secretary of the CSEU