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Why a 4-day workweek is on the table for autoworkers

Autoworkers assemble cars at a Ford plant in Chicago on June 24, 2019.
Jim Young
/
AFP via Getty Images
Autoworkers assemble cars at a Ford plant in Chicago on June 24, 2019.

What if you could work just four days a week but get paid for five?

That's essentially what Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers, has been agitating for in ongoing labor talks in Detroit.

The reform-minded union leader envisions a 32-hour work week for 40 hours of pay, and overtime for anything more.

As wild as that might sound, he's leaning on a concept that has captured the imagination of workers all over the world, thanks to widely publicized trials. Microsoft ran a month-long pilot in Japan in 2019 and reported hugely positive results, including a 40% increase in productivity. More recently, dozens of companies in the U.S., Canada, and Europe have participated in ongoing trials that have likewise been deemed successful.

But Fain's push — alongside other "audacious demands" (Fain's own words) the UAW has laid on the table — is noteworthy because of how radical a change it would represent.

"Our members are working 60, 70, even 80 hours a week just to make ends meet," Fain said on a Facebook Live event last month. "That's not a living. That's barely surviving, and it needs to stop."

The idea is steeped in UAW history

In fact, the idea of a shorter work week for the same amount of pay was championed by UAW's leaders nearly a century ago. Fain says he discovered the history while perusing old copies of UAW's Solidarity magazine from the 1930s and 40s.

"Essentially, it was understood as a continuation of a very long-term struggle" for shorter hours and higher wages, says Jonathan Cutler, a sociologist at Wesleyan University and author of the book Labor's Time: Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism.

Unions had fought for decades against oppressive conditions, with workers topping 100 hours a week. By 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act limited the work week to 44 hours, and then two years later to 40 hours.

At the time, Cutler says, the assumption was the fight would continue on to the next target, a 30-hour week.

While the idea gained traction among rank-and-file auto workers, the UAW leadership ultimately stepped away from it, letting it fall to the side in dealmaking.

"It's a big demand," says Cutler. "It is the axis of a lot of power struggles in labor... how much you're going to work for the pay that you get."

Reality on the ground: Auto workers' 70-hour work weeks

Few believe automakers today would ever give serious consideration to what Fain has proposed. Given plants run around the clock, a shortened workweek would be expensive and logistically challenging for companies already struggling to stay competitive.

"I don't think the company's going to go for that," says Jerry Coleman, a line worker in the paint department at the Stellantis Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio.

But what a difference it would make.

Coleman, who's worked at the plant since 2017 as a temporary employee, says for most of that time, he's worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week — a grueling schedule that's caused him to miss milestones in his two daughters' lives.

Last year, he missed his younger daughter's kindergarten graduation because he couldn't get the day off. This year, he made the difficult decision to send his older daughter to live with her mother so that she could participate in after school sports.

"It's not fair to her that she can't do this, because I'm constantly stuck at work," says Coleman.

It's not the life he wants, but he needs the income.

"What can I do? Either be with my kids or lose my job," he says.

After five and a half years with Stellantis, Coleman earns $19.76 an hour, plus overtime. He's hoping the new contract will speed his path to becoming a permanent employee, with better pay and benefits and more say over his hours.

4-day work week elsewhere proving a hit

The nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, which helps companies transition away from the traditional five-day work week, has found a lot of success with their trials over the past few years.

Workers have not only been happier, they're also more productive. Of the 61 companies who took part in a trial in the U.K. last year, the vast majority said they'd continue on with the shorter work week.

Most of the trials have involved smaller companies with office workers, not line workers.

"We don't have many manufacturing organizations in the trial as you can imagine," says Boston College sociologist Wen Fan, a lead researcher on the trials.

Only a handful have participated, including Pressure Drop Brewing in London, U.K., and Advanced RV in Willoughby, Ohio.

Fan says while the deadline demands in manufacturing present an extra challenge for companies, providing an additional day off can have added benefits for workers, giving them rest from physically taxing jobs.

"It gives people the necessary time and space to recover and refresh," she says.

"Power concedes nothing without a demand"

Even if the shortened work week falls away from the UAW's core demands as appears likely, Fain doesn't appear to be letting up on his insistence for better pay and more time off.

"We need to get back fighting for a vision of society in which everyone earns family-sustaining wages, and everyone has enough free time to enjoy their lives and see their kids grow up and their parents grow old," he told supporters over Facebook Live.

Days later at a Labor Day rally, he invoked the words of Frederick Douglass before a cheering crowd.

"Power concedes nothing without a demand," he said before promising to take action if a deal is not made by September 14 when the UAW contract expires.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.