The four-day week is an idea that is gaining popular traction and momentum. It’s being seriously considered and implemented by private sector firms, governments and legislatures, and the entire U.S state of California.
There are different approaches and models for how this looks, but the prevailing left-wing approach is essentially this: an extra day off for all workers with no loss of pay.
It’s an idea that necessarily follows from the long and proud history of the labour movement.
We won the weekend as a world-historic victory for working people. We tell this to potential members as part of our join conversations. We defend it when neoliberals try to strip away penalty rates as part of the entitlements we receive when we voluntarily work on weekends.
We’re about a quarter of the way through the 21st Century now. We haven’t had a major reduction in working hours for a very long time. Critically, since the advent of neoliberalism forty-odd years ago now, we’ve been largely constrained in making transformative demands for working people. The Australian trade union movement has been on the back foot struggling to win real pay increases and defend permanent, secure employment.
It's difficult to admit, but the union movement is on the decline. It’s looking pretty grim. Certainly, a secure jobs agenda and a plan for real wage rises will do much to arrest or reverse some the decline we have seen. An insecure and precarious labour market has been designed to suppress wages and smash unions.
But what gave us the historic highs of trade union membership? It seems to me it was winning massive and transformational victories for workers in the face of forces determined to stop us, like winning the weekend. We need to integrate the notion of a four-day week into our secure jobs agenda precisely to make that agenda so transformational that we once again inspire the majority of Australian workers to be a part of our movement.
Critically, it is important that unions engage with the idea such that the notion of a four-day week is not co-opted by neoliberals to justify attacks on wages, forcing people to get five days’ work done in four days for 20% less in wages. The time for this idea has come, so we need to make sure that this is a workers’ four-day week and not a bosses’ four-day week.
A labour movement designed and led four-day week proposal as part of a secure jobs agenda has enormous potential. It is a common argument for a four-day week that most workers are as productive in four days as they are in five, because their happiness and wellbeing is improved. It does remain true though that there are some companies and organisations that always require hands on deck, and what then? The answer is to hire more workers in well-paying secure jobs.
This is particularly true in the public sector, which often must deliver services often round the clock. A four-day week can be a key part of revitalising a robust public sector as a model and economy-leading employer that delivers well-paying secure jobs.
The four-day week with no loss of pay is also totally feasible in the private sector. Some firms are already proceeding with it, some are co-opting the idea for their own purposes. We know corporate profits jump to record highs, even in the pandemic. The arguments that more leisure time with full pay is systemically unaffordable or unaffordable for many individual firms and businesses was made when workers first fought for the weekend.
Where the private or public sector is bound to a four-day work week but needs to continue to operate and they cannot bring on more workers or those workers voluntarily wish to work, it also bears considering that we may lower the threshold for overtime pay and extend penalty rates to an additional day. If we design it right, we may be able to secure significant improvements to the wages of hospitality and retail workers, among other sectors.
As we look towards the future, the Australian trade union movement is insisting upon a secure jobs agenda that, if implemented correctly, will go some way to winding back the decades-long neoliberal assault on secure work and real wages, but we cannot let our only aims be reversing years of decline. There is no binary between secure work and a four-day work week – instead, we must consider a four-day week as a part of the plan to win secure jobs and higher wages.
It's time for the Australian labour movement and members of the ALP to fight for a four-day week. Fight for it to be put on your Enterprise Agreement claims. Put motions up in your branches and in conferences. It’s one of the best possible ideas that is not quite yet on our agenda – but with a little organising and agitation, it will be soon.
Chris S. Warren is a rank-and-file ALP member and union delegate in his workplace.