Why a 20-Hour Work Week Could Be the Solution to Our Polycrisis

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The UAW’s bold demand for a shorter workweek

The United Auto Workers (UAW), one of the largest and most influential labor unions in the US, has recently launched its next contract campaign with the Big Three automakers: Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler. The union, led by its first popularly elected president, Shawn Fain, is not only fighting for better wages and benefits, but also for a radical reduction of the workweek from 40 to 32 hours.

This is a reasonable and visionary demand that has the potential to help meet part of our current polycrisis, the term used by historian Adam Tooze to describe the convergence of multiple global challenges, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate emergency, the geopolitical conflicts, and the economic uncertainty. By demanding a shorter workweek, the UAW is challenging the dominant logic of capitalism that compels workers to produce more and more for less and less, while sacrificing their health, happiness, and freedom.

The benefits of a 20-hour workweek

But why stop at 32 hours? Why not go further and demand a 20-hour workweek, as some progressive thinkers and activists have suggested? A 20-hour workweek would have multiple benefits for workers, society, and the planet. Here are some of them:

Why a 20-Hour Work Week Could

  • It would improve workers’ well-being and quality of life. Studies have shown that working less hours reduces stress, improves mental and physical health, enhances creativity and productivity, and allows more time for leisure, family, and community .
  • It would create more jobs and reduce inequality. A shorter workweek would enable a more equitable distribution of work and income, especially in times of high unemployment and underemployment. It would also reduce the gap between overworked and underworked workers, and between men and women, who often bear the brunt of unpaid domestic and care work .
  • It would reduce environmental impact and carbon emissions. A shorter workweek would mean less consumption, less waste, less commuting, and less energy use. It would also encourage a shift from a growth-oriented economy to a more sustainable and circular one, where resources are used efficiently and responsibly .

The challenges and opportunities of a 20-hour workweek

Of course, a 20-hour workweek is not a magic bullet that can solve all our problems. It would require a radical transformation of our political economy, our social norms, and our cultural values. It would also face fierce resistance from the powerful interests that benefit from the status quo. Some of the challenges and opportunities of a 20-hour workweek are:

  • It would require a fair and progressive taxation system that ensures adequate public revenue and social protection for all workers, regardless of their hours and status. It would also require a universal basic income that guarantees a decent living standard for everyone, regardless of their work .
  • It would require a democratic and participatory decision-making process that involves workers, employers, governments, and civil society in determining the optimal length and conditions of work for different sectors and occupations. It would also require a strong and independent labor movement that can organize and mobilize workers for their rights and interests .
  • It would require a cultural and educational shift that challenges the dominant ideology of workism, which equates work with identity, value, and meaning. It would also require a redefinition of success and happiness that goes beyond material wealth and consumption, and embraces human flourishing and well-being .

A 20-hour workweek is possible and desirable

A 20-hour workweek may seem utopian and unrealistic, but it is not impossible or undesirable. In fact, it is a logical and necessary response to our polycrisis, which demands nothing less than a fundamental change in our relationship to work, capital, and nature. A 20-hour workweek would not only improve the lives of millions of workers, but also create a more just, democratic, and ecological society. It is time to organize and fight for it.

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