Want a 32-hour workweek? Give workers more power.

Want a 32-hour workweek? Give workers more power.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and UAW President Shawn Fain, left, speak at a rally in support of United Auto Workers members as they strike the Big Three automakers on September 15, 2023, in Detroit, Michigan. | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

German labor history has some tips on how the US could reduce its workweek.

The 40-hour workweek in the US will turn 84 this June, making it older than most human beings alive today. But unlike humans, who are always changing and adapting, today’s standard workweek has spent its 84 years frozen in time.

The last time federal law reduced the workweek was in 1940. An amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) dropped the threshold of hours after which workers qualify for overtime pay from 44 to 40, capping off a steady decline in average working hours that began back around 1830. And then — nothing.

Earlier this month, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–VT) introduced a bill that would pick the trend back up, cutting the workweek down to 32 hours over the course of four years. The bill would use the same mechanism as the FLSA: lowering the overtime pay threshold to 32 hours, which would drive employers of hourly or non-exempt salaried workers to treat 32 hours as “full-time.” To prevent wages from falling accordingly, the bill forbids employers from cutting pay to go along with the shorter hours.

For many white-collar workers shifting into a four-day, 32-hour week — say, journalists at Vox — the expectation would be that we produce roughly the same amount of work more efficiently (by cutting out pointless meetings and benefiting from less stress and burnout). For workers who can’t just cut out meetings to become more efficient, like those doing physical labor, the bill would essentially grant them a 20 percent raise since they’d be doing eight hours of work less for the same pay.

During a hearing by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (which Sanders chairs), Sanders and Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers union, pointed out that since 1940, worker productivity has risen more than 400 percent, all while the standard workweek hasn’t budged. They argue that’s because the decline of workers’ bargaining power has left the gains in productivity to benefit the wealthy, not workers. Despite widespread support among employees and even some growing interest among employers, the bill will almost certainly not reach the Senate floor for a vote, let alone clear the Republican-led House and wind up on President Biden’s desk.

Critics like Sen. Bill Cassidy (R–LA) argue that while a 32-hour week sounds nice on the surface, it would wind up hurting workers it’s meant to benefit by incentivizing employers to raise prices, automate jobs, or send them overseas, rather than dishing out 20 percent raises.

One of the biggest obstacles to making progress on shorter workweeks is that federal legislation can be a blunt tool, and a top-down approach could fail to allow for the fine-tuning that would make it fit across different industries and worker preferences. Roger King, a labor relations attorney, commented during the committee hearing that suggests a way forward on delivering shorter weeks to workers who want them: “If Mr. Fain’s union can negotiate with the auto companies in this country to do a 32-hour workweek, so be it,” said King.

Conservatives and progressives alike can agree that labor and industry representatives should be free to bargain with each other. That’s how some of the biggest changes to the economy have come in the past: Collective bargaining agreements between unions and bosses secured and adapted changes like the eight-hour day to their particular industries, hashing out best practices on the ground and paving the way for federal legislation to spread them across the rest of the economy. Bills like Sanders’s can help ignite conversation and set agendas, but actual progress on achieving a shorter workweek is more likely to come from below.

To secure such a major change to economic life, American workers will need more bargaining power than they have today. While union activity seems to be coming back after being dismantled over decades, and wages are rising fastest for workers who make the least, we’re still far from the kind of power needed to pick up the old thread of reducing the workweek.

History, though, offers an excellent example of how workers, once sufficiently empowered, can drive changes of that magnitude. Consider the rise of codetermination — a practice now common throughout Western Europe where workers have a voice in business decisions by holding voting seats on corporate boards — across Germany in the 20th century.

Codetermination was once seen as a major change that would chart a path toward a “new economy,” but it didn’t arise via federal law. At least, not at first. It took decades of unionized workers building enough leverage to negotiate for smaller codetermination arrangements in their own industries, from coal miners to electrical engineers, all before there was enough consensus to pass federal legislation that extended codetermination rights across the German economy.

“Federal legislation that sets minimum standards and collective bargaining are complementary,” said Ewan McGaughey, a professor of law and economic history at King’s College in London. “You don’t want one without the other.”

If shorter working weeks are going to return as a real possibility in the 21st century, the US will first need more than a couple advocates in the Senate, and the country will need a labor movement powerful enough to bargain for them.

How collective bargaining paved the way for national codetermination in Germany

Codetermination in Germany began, believe it or not, with a benevolent boss.

The basic idea behind codetermination is that employers should not have total control over the business — workers should have a voice in company decisions, too. As McGaughey explains in his 2015 paper on The Codetermination Bargains, the sentiment first arose among those sympathetic to the growing plight of workers toiling in miserable conditions stemming from the Industrial Revolution. If labor could “co-determine” the economy alongside bosses, they could help bend the arc of economic development toward their benefit, not just that of capital.

In 1848, a Saxon textile factory owner named Carl Degenkolb was elected to the newly formed Frankfurt Parliament, which arose in response to the ongoing German Revolutions expressing discontent with autocratic rule. The parliament aimed to unify the German states into a single national government based on parliamentary democracy.

Ultimately, it failed. Degenkolb, however, had come to the belief that worker participation in guiding economic activity was as important as political participation. He pitched his belief to the rest of the parliament, proposing the idea of having councils in every business district. One-third of these councils would be elected by workers, the other two-thirds by employers, and the workers could reach binding decisions about the workplace, from drafting factory ordinances (including pension scheme administration) to child care and health care.

While Degenkolb didn’t convince a majority of members, he released an unofficial draft of his ideas anyway. He convinced three fellow industrialists to implement the practices in their own factories. Historians could find no records of how the experiment played out but believe the practices remained in place until Degenkolb died in 1862.

The idea of worker participation then began to spread across Germany, garnering labor’s support — and capital’s ire. But it wasn’t until the end of World War I that the balance of bargaining power leaned far enough in workers’ favor to get federal laws passed in what had become the Weimar Republic. The costs of war and the sanctions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles decimated German business interests, leaving them uniquely vulnerable to labor demands.

In November 1918, Germany’s three largest unions met with the employers’ federations to negotiate the Stinnes-Legien Agreement, a bargain that would set the course for the post-war economy. The agreement secured all workers the freedom to associate (basically, to form bargaining organizations like unions), and guaranteed work councils in all companies with more than 50 employees. Workdays were capped at eight hours, and working conditions were regulated in each trade via collective agreements bargained by their relevant unions.

After four years of these agreements spreading across industries, the Supervisory Council Act of 1922 codified them as national law. It also went one step further, requiring that all German corporations with supervisory boards grant employee representatives up to two seats on the board, giving workers direct voting rights on company decisions.

That gave codetermination a foothold in the boardroom. At first, it was weak in practice. Worker representatives made up a minority of the board, meaning they could never win head-to-head votes against management. And businesses quickly adapted, curbing the influence of worker voice by reducing the number of decisions supervisory boards were tasked to make, having fewer meetings, and bypassing the boards altogether by having shareholders delegate tasks to sub-committees.

The aftermath of World War II opened another opportunity for bargaining power to secure stronger legislation. German businesses were decimated after the war. Their alignment with the Nazi regime had undermined their moral authority, and thus political power, in the nascent post-war order.

In response, unions pressed the advantage. In 1947, unions representing coal and steel workers struck a deal through a series of conferences with steel employers. Seats of the supervisory boards in their industries would be shared equally by workers and employers, effective immediately.

Movements for further codetermination spread across the four zones of Allied occupation in what then became West Germany, from the railways of the French-occupied zone to copper smelters in Duisburg. But as businesses began to recover from the economic ruins of the war, opposition to codetermination started to mount. Konrad Adenauer, the first elected chancellor of West Germany, responded by passing the Mining Codetermination Act of 1951, securing the coal and steel workers’ agreement as federal law.

A year later, Adenauer’s government passed the Work Constitution Act, spreading the right to one-third supervisory board representation to workers across all German industries. “The codetermination bargains forged a social consensus,” writes McGaughey. And in 1976, the commitment to codetermination was deepened by raising worker representation to one-half of the board for all companies with more than 2,000 employees. “This consensus was codified into law.”

The Goldilocks conditions for big policy change

Codetermination represented a major change to the German economy. It restructured the power dynamics that decide how the economy directs and invests its resources.

McGaughey believes it was only possible thanks to what he calls the two Goldilocks conditions: rare moments of organized labor experiencing relatively equal bargaining power to employers, and a labor movement united around a shared objective.

Imagining a similar Goldilocks-style bargaining-first approach to shorter workweeks today doesn’t require all that much of an imaginative leap, at least in theory. It’s how we got the workweek down to 40 hours in the first place here in the States.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, which gave us the 40-hour week in 1940, was itself built upon existing collective bargaining agreements that organized workers won for eight-hour days.

Whether it’s the International Typographical Union that went on strike before securing eight-hour days in 1906, or the railroad industry unions threatening a nationwide strike that won the same rights through the Adamson Act in 1916, this basic pattern was behind both codetermination’s rise in Germany and the eight-hour day in the US: First, collective bargaining paves the way, then federal legislation codifies it.

Today, while the labor movement has seen some of its first signs of a return to power in decades, union membership is still hovering around 10 percent, the lowest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started collecting this data in 1983. The US is a long way from that first Goldilocks condition of equal bargaining power with employers, but some unions are making strides. A municipal employees union in San Juan County, Washington, secured a 32-hour week last August, joining other unions that have bargained for 32-hour weeks at companies like Kickstarter and organizations like Local Progress.

Just last month, the largest union at Boeing (representing over 32,000 factory workers in the state of Washington) announced that they’re seeking a seat on the company board — that’s codetermination — after doors and wheels have been flying off their airplanes.

To change the structure of an entire economy, though, you need more than isolated unions bargaining with individual employers.

McGaughey explained that ideally, you want mandates from federal law, states, collective bargaining agreements, and individual workplace contracts all stacked like a pyramid, each building on the last to fine-tune policy to better fit with industry contexts and worker preferences.

Federal mandates should set the basic parameters, like minimum wages or maximum workweeks, which act as the baseline of what’s considered acceptable no matter one’s industry or preferences. States can go further, like setting higher minimum wages than what comes from the federal level. “Louis Brandeis, who became a US Supreme Court Justice [he served from 1916 to 1939], talks about states being the laboratories of democracy,” said McGaughey. “There’s no reason you couldn’t have a working time act in every Democratic legislature, starting with Vermont.”

Next, collective bargaining agreements can set standards across industries. Here, the US labor movement lags far behind peer countries in Western Europe, where sectoral bargaining is common. But again, there are glimmers of progress emerging. The idea of sectoral bargaining has been gaining traction for years in the US. In 2016, a report from the Center for American Progress argued that the future of worker voice and power lies in “transforming unions from individual firm-level bargaining units into organizations or structures … that negotiate for higher wages and benefits across an entire industry or sector.”

And in September, California was home to one of the US’s first sectoral bargaining agreements in decades. Labor unions secured a deal with fast food companies to establish a $20 minimum wage across the industry. The bill also established a form of codetermination, creating a nine-member council split between representatives for workers and employers. The council will vote on minimum standards across the industry moving forward, including wages, hours, and conditions.

The question that remains is whether any of these efforts will reach the top of the pyramid and drive higher-level legislation. In addition to Sanders’s federal 32-hour bill, states like Massachusetts, Maryland, and California have 32-hour bills floating around. Both Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have their own codetermination bills out, too.

But if any bills are actually going to gain ground on making shorter weeks a reality for those who want them, it’s probably going to be ones like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which could restore and protect workers’ right to organize and make it easier to form larger and larger bargaining units. Or more worker-friendly social policies like the fully refundable child tax credit, portable benefits (like health insurance and retirement accounts) that employees can transfer between employers, beefed-up unemployment insurance, or the Ghent System of running unemployment through unions (which helps to build membership).

These, in turn, would send more power back down to workers and bargaining units on the ground, feeding efforts that could send pressure upward while smoothing the way for federal legislation to codify whatever objectives empowered workers are already negotiating with industry representatives.

During the UAW union’s high-profile, strike-driven negotiation with auto manufacturers last year, a 32-hour week began as one of their demands. It was quickly shot down by automakers over the same concerns heard at Sanders’s recent hearing (instead, they won 25 percent wage increases over four and a half years). Fain’s appearance alongside Sanders indicates that more unions could be returning to the demand for shorter weeks, which served as the historical foundation for the American labor movement.

“A number of unions that represent low-wage workers are becoming interested in this,” said Vishal Reddy, executive director of the four-day-focused nonprofit, WorkFour. Now, as we’re beginning to navigate a century of adaptation to climate change, AI, shifting geopolitical landscapes, and everything else on the growing list of world-shaping forces, the question is whether workers might gain enough power to make shorter hours not just a utopian longing of the past, but a part of our future, too.

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