A shorter working week: lessons from recent history

May 20, 1998


A shorter working week: lessons from recent history

By James Vassilopoulos

"Thirty-five hours, more jobs, more leisure!", was the demand by the Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union in its industrial campaign of 1980-81.

With full-time workers today working an average of 43 hours a week, fewer hours with no cut in pay sounds like a great idea.

There is a constant pressure from capitalists to increase the length of the working week. This was most obvious in the period of early industrial capitalism, which was marked by monstrous exploitation of workers who had not yet built strong unions to defend themselves.

This is how Frederick Engels, in his book, The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844, described the situation of workers: "... the manufacturers began to employ children rarely of five years, often of six, very often of seven, usually of eight or nine ... the working day often lasted fourteen to sixteen hours, exclusive of meals and intervals ... the manufacturers permitted overlookers to flog and maltreat children."

Eight-hour day

In Australia in the 1850s, the 12- or 10-hour day was not uncommon. But the gold rushes, an upturn in the economy and the demand for labour strengthened the bargaining position of workers.

"Eight hours to work, eight hours to play, eight hours to sleep and eight bob a day", became a slogan of the times. The sentiment became a mass phenomenon, the Eight Hours Movement.

The craft unions of the building industry led the way. The Operative Masons Societies went on strike for an eight-hour day in 1855. They succeeded in gaining an eight-hour day, six-day week.

Other unions like the plasterers and the carpenters soon followed. The fight for an eight-hour day was not just an industrial movement but also a political one. There were rallies and public meetings, like the procession which marched from the University of Melbourne and the huge public meeting presided over by the mayor of Melbourne for the "8-8-8".

Soon after this, all the building employers conceded the eight-hour day. In other industries, the struggle continued; it was not till 1872 that the eight-hour day was celebrated by the union movement as a victory. By the 1890s, the eight-hour day was generally enforced in the Australian colonies.

35-hour week

The campaign for a 35-hour week with no loss in pay was catapulted into prominence by the August 1979 Union Carbide strike and occupation at Altona, Victoria. The workers began their campaign with overtime bans. The company then attempted to introduce scabs and lock the workers out.

To neutralise the scabbing, the workers decided to occupy the plant. As a number of workers remarked at the time, "Who do they [the company] think they are? We're Union Carbide, the ones who produce the goods and profit."

The occupation lasted for an incredible 51 days.

Vic Williams, one of the rank-and-file leaders of the sit-in, told the December 3 Direct Action, "It [the 35-hour week] is tremendously important. We hear a lot about how the 35-hour week will cause a loss of jobs, but this is nonsense. The 35-hour week means more jobs. It will mean an extra shift throughout the whole of the Altona complex for instance, creating well over 100 extra jobs."

By May 1980, workers in a number of industries were striking to win a 35-hour week. Shop stewards in each of the vehicle plants in Victoria met to develop a strategy.

In the largest delegates meeting since 1974, metal unions on April 24, 1980, met to endorse recommendations for mass meetings to discuss an award claim, to include a 35-hour week.

This campaign included the distribution of a booklet which explained the need for a 35-hour week written in seven different languages, a ban on overtime and striking one day per month. It was led by the AMWSU.

Mass meetings were held monthly. In the mass meetings held on May 20 and 21, 32,559 metal workers turned up to vote, giving an 80% endorsement to the campaign.

Power, oil and gas workers in the La Trobe Valley also pushed for a 35-hour week. Oil and gas workers in the Bass Strait struck for two weeks about the issue.

On May 8, the Arbitration Commission began hearing a claim for the 35-hour week, brought on behalf of more than half a million workers covered by the metal industry award.

ALP opposition leader Bill Hayden argued that a shorter work week would have "damaging consequences to many industries" and stated: "I would not support a 35-hour week at this time".

By October, the Australian Council of Trade Unions was undermining the campaign. It proposed to call off all strike action, including the one-day strike per month, in order for a national wage case to be heard. This motion was adopted by metal unions, although there was strong opposition to the retreat, workers in Victoria and South Australia voting against the ACTU-sponsored motion.

This motion was supported by the Communist Party of Australia, which had significant influence in the AMWSU. It distributed a leaflet called "Hot Metal", which stated, "The current tactics of the campaign do need changing".

The campaign for a 35-hour week continued in many workplaces: at Alcoa's alumina plant in the Pinjarra, among NSW brewery workers and in the South Australian public service.

Workers at B.F. Goodrich in the petrochemical complex of Altona struck for 17 weeks. Jack Gallacher, a shop steward at Goodrich, told the November 5, 1980 edition of Direct Action, "The Arbitration Commission favours the companies more than the unions in the sense that in the commission on several occasions recently no decisions have been handed down and we consider that this favours the companies".

Through sustained industrial action, many victories were registered. The Altona petrochemical complex (the Union Carbide and Goodrich fights paid off), Hannafords (a mining machinery maker in Cabramatta) and NSW public servants all got the 35-hour week.

The AMWSU won its battle at Fox Manufacturing in a 10-week strike.

In February 1981, the metal unions resumed their campaign for a 35-hour week. Mass meetings decided to work a nine-day fortnight. This campaign continued throughout the year and included a 48-hour strike in which 85% of AMWSU members participated.

During this time companies like Clyde Engineering at Rosewater in South Australia, Jubilee Engineering and factories in the glass industry all reduced their working hours with no loss in pay.

By December 8, metalworkers around the country, on recommendation by union leaders like Laurie Carmichael, voted for a compromise which gave them a 38-hour week and a wage increase.

Could the metalworkers have won a 35-hour week? John Garcia wrote in Direct Action of January 20, 1982, that this could have been done because the mood of the members was still strong, other workers were having 35-hour victories and the attendance at mass meetings was the biggest for a long time.

These gains in the 1980s were won through sustained industrial action, involving many workplaces and unions, in which the members were involved through delegate meetings and mass meetings. Those gains have been lost since then largely through relying on the Industrial Relations Commission and promises of politicians.

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