The Covid-19 crisis has impacted our societies and economies unlike anything in living memory. In order to save lives, people have stayed at home and the economy has been placed into a deep freeze. However, without serious interventions, the thawing of the economy will be a painful process and sectors like manufacturing are facing massive redundancies. One in four manufacturers are planning to make redundancies in the next six months, and more than a quarter of those planning to make redundancies say it will involve up to half of their staff.
But despite this, what happens to these organisations is far from inevitable. Their future should not be dictated top-down from employers or the government. Workers and their unions are the people best suited to make decisions about the future of their work. And when workers and their unions come to put forward plans, working time should be on the table. Reducing working time is a way of saving jobs in the short term, improving productivity in the sector, and transforming workers’ lives and communities in the long term. With the government’s plans for a part-time furlough scheme, shorter hours will become a reality for many in the coming weeks and months regardless.
In our response to the crisis, it is important to learn lessons from the past. Following the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11, the entire airline industry experienced a shock. Several airline manufacturers went bankrupt as people turned away from flying. This included the Airbus manufacturing plant in Broughton, North Wales which currently employs 6,000 workers – over 80 percent of whom are members of Unite, their workplace union. In response to this insecure environment, union members at the plant feared redundancies. So the union put forward an alternative plan: they would cancel their upcoming pay rise in exchange for a 35-hour working week and a temporary pause on overtime.
Airbus agreed with the union’s proposal, and the implementation of the 35-hour week at the plant was an enormous success. It saved around 200 jobs at the plant during the crisis. The 35-hour week was a major boon to Airbus too, who could now attract the best talent in an increasingly specialised job market. Since the move to shorter hours (up until this current crisis) Airbus went from strength to strength and its share price increased by a factor of nine. Workers had more time to spend with their families and in their communities, and workers who are parents were able to share caring responsibilities with their partners.
New research from NEF and the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) shows how, in the manufacturing sector in the UK and beyond, workers and unions have won reductions in working time. Trade unions have always fought to ensure that the benefits of an increasingly productive economy were shared fairly with workers in the form of shorter hours, as well as improved pay and conditions. From the weekend, to the eight-hour day, and paid annual leave, long term, structural change is achieved best when workers are front and centre in driving it.
After World War II, strong collective bargaining ensured that working hours decreased significantly. For the next three decades, gains in productivity, higher wages, and reductions in working hours went hand-in-hand. But this trend came to an end around 1980 with the election of Margaret Thatcher and the subsequent legislative attacks on trade unions, which made it more difficult for workers to bargain for reduced hours with employers. Had the post-WWII trend of steady increases in leisure time in line with productivity growth continued beyond 1980, the full-time working week today would be at least 4.2 hours shorter than it currently is.
Going into this crisis, workers and their unions should feel emboldened knowing that they are owed a significant reduction in working time after four decades of stagnation. They should feel confident knowing that countries who work fewer hours are more likely to be more productive. For example, Germany, the Netherlands, and all of Scandinavia work far fewer hours than the UK, and yet have much higher levels of productivity. Workers are happier, less stressed, healthier, and more productive when they work fewer hours.
The crisis brought about by the pandemic can make us feel paralysed by its enormity. But it is important to note we have gone into crises before, and emerged from them with a stronger and fairer economy, and a happier society. We know that in order to deal with this crisis right now, and change the rules of the economy for a better future, the trade union movement needs to be deeply involved in the decisions that are made about the industries effected. As they have done before, workers should look to win a permanent reduction in working hours – and ensure that we emerge from the crisis with a better world than the one we had going into it.