Demand for a Short Work Week – 30 hours work for 40 hours pay

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By Jerry Goldberg

UAW Vice President and chief negotiator Terry Dittes, has correctly articulated that the critical issue in the current UAW/General Motors strike, in addition to ending the wage disparities among the members, is job security. What underlies the current battle is whether the technology of the future, encompassed in the shift to electric car production, will be used to fatten the profits of GM and the other auto corporations through further wage cuts and job cutbacks, or whether the technology will be used for the benefit of the workers through shorter work hours with no cuts in pay.

The strategy of the UAW leadership for the past 40 years, giving up huge contract concessions based on the false notion that joint union- company cooperation is the way to save jobs, proved to be a complete failure, and has led to corruption  within the union officialdom. Hopefully, the UAW/GM strike signals the end of that approach, and its replacement with the militant class struggle approach that built the union. Part of that approach entails re-raising demands for a short week, 30 and out pensions for all union members, an end to multi-tier wages and guaranteed lifetime jobs.

Demand for a Short Work Week – 30 hours work for 40 hours pay

In the 1970’s, the UAW rank and file organized a movement around the demand for a short week, 30 hours work for 40 hours pay. This demand was first prominently raised by the AFL in the 1930’s, and by a significant sector of the UAW in the 1950’s..

1970’s Paid Personal Holidays

In the1970’s rank and file UAW members and officers organized a conference for a short work week at UAW 22 in Detroit, which represented GM’s Cadillac plant at the time. The core of the demand was that as new technology is introduced into the plants, the workers should get the benefits of the increase in productivity through a short work week with no cut in pay.

In response to the growing movement for a short work week among the ranks, the UAW leadership took up this demand in the 1976 and 1979 contracts. In the 1976 contract the UAW won 12 paid personal holidays (pph days) over the three year contract. This was expanded to 26 in the 1979-1982 contract.

PPH days meant that one week a month, workers would work a shorter work week, 32 hours for 40 hours pay. PPH days were mandatory days off. As a result of even this modest implementation of a shorter work week, the auto companies were required to hire thousands of new workers to cover the time off. The PPH days were especially appreciated by employees who otherwise would never take a day off, who suddenly had an extra day to relax or spend it with their families.

The PPH days were seen as the first step towards the implementation of a genuine short work week throughout the auto industry. Unfortunately the paid personal holidays were eliminated in the concession contracts beginning in the early 1980’s.

History of the Fight for 30 for 40 in the labor movement of the 1930’s

In the book “Work with End, Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work,” by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, Temple University Press, 1988, the author traces the history of the struggle for a short work week, 30 hours pay for 40 hours worked, waged by the labor movement in the 1920’s and 30’s. The author begins by noting there is a long history of strikes for shorter work time in the history of the US labor movement. The nationwide general strikes of 1886 which culminated in the Haymarket incident in Chicago, and the Great Steel Strike of 1919 encompassing 350,000 workers, were both about shorter work hours, and led to the 8 hour day being adopted and accepted.

The author reports that after 1925 the AFL developed the “productivity theory of shorter hours.” He cites a New York Times article from October 1926 which stated, “Labor is making this latest demand [for wages and hours] on entirely new grounds. It maintains that the workers are entitled to an increasing share of the benefits derived from the amazing industrial increases – benefits in higher wages as well as shorter hours.” The 1926 AFL annual meeting passed a resolution advocating a “a progressive shortening of the hours of labor and the days per week.”

Honnicutt further discusses how during the depression of the 1930’s, a 30 hour work week was introduced in Kellogs of Battle Creek, Sears Roebuck, GM at Tarrytown, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Hudson Motors, and several cotton manufacturers. Remington Rand adopted the 4 day work week. The Black-Connerly bills were introduced in the U.S Senate and House in the 1930’s calling for a 30 hour work week. It was passed in the Senate. Francis Perkins Secretary of Labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, proposed a 30 hour work week bill coupled with a minimum wage, though FDR later withdrew his support.

The book notes how William Green, president of the AFL advocated for the six hour work day and 30 hour work week to be included in all the industrial codes under the National Industrial Recovery Act. The AFL continued to push for a 30 hour work week  at rallies and at their conventions in the 1930’s.

However, the author reports that issue of a 30 hour work week more or  less disappeared generally within the AFL after 1940, as the workweek stabilized at 40 hours (though in recent years with the use of overtime the workweek has often been greater than 40).

30 for 40 movement in the UAW

The book “Labor’s Time, Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism,” by Jonathan Cutler, Temple University Press, 2004, discusses how the issue of a shorter worker week, 30 for 40, was debated in the UAW in the 1940’s and 1950’s. When GM chairman Erwin Wilson, called for expanding the workweek to 45 hours in 1947, Walter Reuther, running for UAW president at that time, answered: “Workers don’t believe our future and the future of America lies in going back. . . . With the advanced technology we have, . . .we are planning a 30 hour work week, with higher pay and higher living standards than we ever had, and we can do it.”

Cutler notes that while Reuther abandoned this position after getting elected, the Committee for a Democratic UAW, including the leadership of UAW Local 600 (representing tens of thousands of workers at the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, MI), and UAW 659 (a leading local in the Flint sitdown strikes) took up the movement for 30 for 40. A resolution for 30 for 40 was adopted by the membership of UAW 600 as a ‘progressive answer to the labor movement difficulties caused by the threat of technology and unemployment.”

The author reports that at a conference in 1952 to combat unemployment within the auto industry, Reuther, while opposing 30 for 40 at that time, recognized 30 for 40 as a legitimate demand, “when our technological productive capacity has advanced to the point which enables us to create sufficient wealth to guarantee a higher living standard than we currently have on the basis for a shorter workweek.”

Cutler reports that a resolution for a 30 hour work week for 40 hours pay was brought to the 1953 UAW convention and debated there. It was defeated in the midst of a red-baiting frenzy led by Reuther and his allies. But, the movement for 30 for 40 did not die. The bargaining convention in 1955 adopted a shorter work week as one of the demands for the union. However, it was abandoned by the leadership in the contract that was negotiated. And while it continued to be raised by the rank and file for a time, it was completely discarded by the leadership in the 1958 contract.

Time to Fight for a Short Work Week and Job Security Has Never Been More Timely

The necessity to raise a demand for the short work week, 30 hours work for 40 hours pay, has never been greater than today. As a result of the introduction of new technology, productivity has increased exponentially. While the number of GM production workers has gone down from 210,000 in 1999 to 49,000 today, with similar cuts for Ford and FCA (Chrysler), US domestic auto production has been pretty steady during that period, going from 13 million vehicles produced in 1999 to 10.8 million last year. While there has been a 77% decline in hourly automobile employment from 1999 to the present, production has only declined by 17% during that time. The new technology to be incorporated in electric car production will lead to further reductions in the workforce.

The workers who produce all the wealth, and whose labor funds all investments in new technology, have a right to ensure that the benefits of that technology are used to their benefit. Rank and file workers need to revive the short work demand, 30 for 40, and make it part of the UAW’s program, whether it is incorporated into the current contract battle or into the battles sure to follow.

In addition, it’s time to demand that 30 and out pensions, first negotiated by the UAW in 1973 as a way to guarantee a decent life for its members and to produce additional jobs, be restored to all auto workers including the current second and third tier workers for whom they were eliminated, with credit for time already worked. The demand for guaranteed lifetime jobs won by the union in the 1982 contract in the form of a guaranteed income stream, as well as a moratorium on plant closings also needs to be reinstated in the program of militant autoworkers.

Jerry Goldberg worked at the Ford Michigan Truck Plant from 1971-1982 and was an active member of UAW Local 900, where he edited a rank and file newsletter.

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