By Jennifer Thompson
On July 18, at the Manufacturing Workers Union national delegates' conference, ACTU secretary Bill Kelty raised an old labour movement standard — a shorter working week to share work around.
Australian workers haven't heard much about this idea since the 1979-82 campaign for a 35-hour week, spearheaded by metalworkers, was settled at a 38-hour week by the ACTU.
Australian unionists began campaigning for shorter working hours in the 1850s. The first successes, winning the eight-hour day (a 48-hour week), were registered in the building industry in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1931, in answer to 30% unemployment, an ACTU emergency conference called for a 35-hour week, and a year later for a 30-hour week. Australian unionists went on to win a 40-hour week in 1948.
For nearly 40 years, the ACTU has included a 35-hour week in its platform. In 1957, it planned a national campaign for a 35-hour week without loss in pay to "secure a just share of gain from technological progress and to maintain employment".
With official unemployment hovering above 8% and no relief in sight, changes to share the work around are vital. Technological improvement, in particular, is throwing more and more workers on to a scrap heap they may never get off. But the "productivity gains" being achieved aren't just costing jobs.
Overwork for some
Improved technology and automated production processes aren't turning out to be labour-saving. In fact, those workers still in jobs are working harder and faster to keep up with better computers and other machines. Some are also working longer, more "flexible", shifts to maximise the use of companies' expensive plant and equipment by operating it 24 hours a day.
Many are working much longer weekly hours, often involving unpaid overtime achieved through the introduction of annual salaries into which penalty rates and shift and other allowances have been rolled, or to meet the requirements of performance-based pay systems.
According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, by the end of 1994, 1.67 million people — 20.4% of those with jobs — were working more than 49 hours per week. Many workers — around one-third according to a March report by the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training — are putting in unpaid overtime every week. ACCIRT said 57.3% of professionals worked unpaid overtime, as did managers, clerks, salespeople and 10% of labourers and 6.3% of machine operators. By March, 16% of enterprise agreements provided for unpaid overtime or time off in lieu.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald's Max Walsh (arguing against substantial public funding of Olympic sports facilities because of declining Australian leisure time), working hours are falling less in Australia than any other advanced capitalist economy outside the US — where working hours have actually increased. He quotes from an OECD Employment Outlook that indicates that while Australians on average worked 1.4% hours less in 1995 than in 1975, this compares to 11.6% less in Germany, 10% less in France and 10.7% less in Japan.
ABS figures showed that unemployment dropped in June by 0.2%, to a seasonally adjusted 8.3%. The ABS trend estimate, however, indicated that unemployment would remain around 8.6%.
The Coalition uses the continuing high unemployment rate to justify the new industrial relations bill, which would repeal the current laws against unfair dismissal and therefore, it argues, make employers more likely to put on new workers. In fact, this "anti-unemployment strategy" is likely to make the situation worse because its whole point is to make it easier for employers to sack workers.
The growing group of unemployed — the working age population grows at around 1.2% annually — is a key factor in battles between employers and workers, employed or not. Employers would generally prefer to lengthen the working day because their basic commitment to workers is only to pay them enough to survive, not the real value created by their work. Even in paying penalty rates, employers avoid the expense of other benefits like superannuation, sick leave and holiday pay, which do not change for the number of hours worked.
A large pool of unemployed is the bosses' best weapon against workers demanding better wages and conditions — they can easily be sacked and replaced by scab labour.
No loss in pay
With so many people relying on overtime or multiple jobs to maintain their living standards, a simple reduction in working hours produces a basic problem: it reduces the living standards of those in work and doesn't lift overall economic demand. Declining wages are already a cause of the longer hours being worked.
Decent wages and hours are two sides of the same coin — the fight for a shorter working week with no loss in pay must be coupled with a campaign to raise the minimum wage.
The ACTU's current living wage claim proposes to lift the minimum wage to $12 per hour and to award annual safety net pay rises of $20 to workers not receiving wage rises through collective bargaining, both over the next three years. Other award rates would be lifted proportionately to maintain existing pay structures.
But these measures alone may not be enough. On October 1, 1994, the German metalworkers' union, IG Metall, achieved its goal, set in 1977, of a 35-hour week at 40 hours' pay. However, metal industry employers used individual-company negotiations over the new work schedules to introduce "flexible" arrangements that clawed back some of their higher costs through increased productivity. Very different rostering arrangements between companies resulted, undermining the metalworkers' unity.
Worse, like companies everywhere, German employers tried to maximise their capital investment by intensifying the pace of work and keeping their factories going around the clock. Rosters included irregular hours and irregular days off; more shifts with fewer people on each; and an increase in overtime on rostered days off, rather than an increase in jobs.
Similarly, in 1993, Hewlett-Packard's Grenoble plant in France adopted a four-day work week, but kept the plant running 24-hours a day, seven days a week. While the workers are paid the same wages as previously for working six hours less per week, the new arrangements have tripled production for the company.
These changes can be countered only with a union strategy to fully incorporate productivity gains into workers' wages. As Jeremy Rifkin notes in The End of Work, "The business community has long operated under the assumption that gains in productivity ... rightfully belong to the shareholders and corporate management in the form of increased dividends and larger salaries and other benefits" and has regarded workers' claims for higher wages or shorter hours as illegitimate. Such claims, the bosses argue, undermine capitalist competitiveness.
Many variations on the theme "we can't afford it" are being used around the world to convince workers to respect business balance sheets. The latest is relentless repetition of the need for the less protected Australian economy to become more competitive in the globalised market. This argument is currently being used to justify everything from wage restraint to cutting welfare, but deserves as little respect from the union movement as profit-greedy employers showed working people during the '80s. n