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IMPROVING the pay and conditions of our members is often thought to be the bread and butter of trade unionism.
That isn’t wrong. As a general secretary, most of my job day to day is focused on fighting for the security and dignity of members at work.
But freedom from work has long been a crucial cause for trade unions, too.
In capitalist societies where the vast majority of people are compelled to sell their labour for a wage to make ends meet, there are necessary limits to the reform and humanisation of work.
Given the dependence of workers on their bosses under our economic system, workplaces from the shopfloor to the classroom are defined by relations of domination.
And beyond structures of discipline and hierarchy at work, the most obvious manifestation of the unfreedom of workers is control of their time by employers.
That’s why trade unions have historically battled to minimise labour time while maximising free time.
“To live a free life,” the Swedish socialist philosopher Martin Haegglund writes, “it is not enough that we have a right to freedom. We must have access to the material resources as well as the forms of education that allow us to ‘own’ the question of what to do with our time.”
Marx insisted, more prosaically, that shortening the working day was the “basic prerequisite” of the “true realm of freedom.”
Our movement has won great victories in this arena. That we have trade unions to thank for the weekend and paid holidays is now widely appreciated.
Yet far too little progress has been made. Working hours in the UK are among the highest in Europe, and they increased further during the pandemic, with people working from home putting in an average of six hours’ unpaid overtime every week. As ever, employers’ profits come at the expense of our freedoms.
In this context, reducing the working week has recently shot back up the agenda.
Especially after 2019 when, amid widespread grassroots campaigning, then shadow chancellor John McDonnell committed Labour to aiming for a 32-hour week with no loss of pay within a decade.
Labour might have lost the general election, but that hasn’t stemmed the tide of support for a four-day week in wider society.
Recent polling shows that 63 per cent of the British public support a four-day working week with no loss of pay, while 64 per cent actively want Boris Johnson to pilot it.
This comes as the Scottish government follows Spain in announcing it is to trial it.
Hoping to contribute to and strengthen the push for more free time for working people, UCU is moving a motion at TUC Congress, seconded by the Communication Workers Union (CWU), calling for a public campaign for a three-day weekend.
Why a three-day weekend? Proposals for the four-day week invariably take the form of reducing the total number of hours worked across the week.
The excellent 4 Day Week campaign, for example, runs an employer accreditation scheme, and to receive its gold standard, firms’ working weeks must be 32 hours or less.
But there is no requirement for these reduced hours to be contained to four days; they can be spread across five.
If a 32-hour week, say, were to become statutory, then this would entail a reduction in working hours but not necessarily a four-day week.
People could still be working over six hours, Monday to Friday. This would of course be a huge advance.
But the quality of our free time is as important as its quantity. We need longer periods of time whose freedom from the domination of employers is sustained and uninterrupted.
Additional whole days off work as standard, not just late afternoons. That’s why the weekend, and specifically pushing for its extension, is important in its own right.
There’s also a political advantage to raising the demand for a three-day weekend alongside a four-day week.
A four-day week implies freedom from work, but it’s during a three-day weekend that such freedom could be exercised to the fullest.
Demanding the latter shows what we want freedom for — not just what we want freedom from.
That enables our case to be made in more positive and propositional terms.
In this sense the three-day weekend echoes the calls by the eight-hour day movement in the 19th century, when workers demanded “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”
They insisted that less time must be spent on the job, but the truly radical idea that underpinned the movement and its demands was that workers should be able to determine how their lives are organised and how their time is spent.
Facing the challenges of climate catastrophe and automation, there has never been a better or more urgent time for the whole trade union movement to organise together, to extend the realm of freedom — and to claim our lives back.
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