How auto unions are advancing the idea of a shorter working week for all

27 nov. 2023


How auto unions are advancing the idea of a shorter working week for all
Laetitia VitaudExpert du Lab

Autrice, consultante et conférencière sur le futur du travail, spécialiste de la productivité, de l’âge et du travail des femmes

The 4-day workweek won’t be happening this year in America’s car factories. But the fact that it has played a huge part in negotiations between union members and automakers is evidence the concept has gone mainstream. In many ways, automobile workers are reviving the tradition of reducing working hours for everyone.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) was once a very powerful institution whose president sat with the President of the United States to discuss the economy and decide the fate of the nation’s workers. It was seen as having the best interests of the country at heart, not as a union focused on defending the privileges of the few. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the industry was at its peak in the US, automakers there employed well over a million workers, and the UAW was their champion. Today, carmakers employ only a fraction of that number. But the union is not about to forget its glorious past and aims to reconnect with a legacy of setting standards for every worker in the country. At the core of the union’s recent demands was the 32-hour four-day week.

In September 2023, the UAW initiated the first trilateral strike in its history – against automakers Ford, Stellantis, and GM. Fuelled by the energy of its newly elected president, Shawn Fain, the union vehemently highlighted the divide between blue-collar union members and the “billionaire class” that controls the economy. Together with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of unions in the United States, the UAW has brought the idea of a 4-day workweek into the mainstream as a means to advance US employees’ working conditions.

In October 2023, a deal was struckwith Ford and Stellantis, and with GM a couple of days later. To obtain unprecedented wage hikes from these three employers, the UAW chose to drop the 4-day workweek as a demand. For its proponents, this seems like a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, the strike did advance the idea and reflect its growing power. Once a fringe idea that nobody took seriously, the 4-day workweek has gained so much momentum that it was used as leverage in this year’s negotiations, which is likely to influence the world of work as a whole.

When automobile workers made the five-day week the norm

A century ago, it was the norm for American workers to toil for eight hours a day six days a week, adding up to 48 hours. The two-day weekend, which is now commonly accepted and cherished, though not always respected, was not standard practice. Workers had physically demanding jobs where regulations and rights were not sufficiently developed. The push for reduced working hours was a major aspect of the labor movement during this era. And the many automobile workers were at the forefront of this battle. The UAW campaigned tirelessly to secure better treatment and a more balanced work-life schedule. Over time, these efforts led to substantial changes in labor laws and workplace norms, including the introduction of a five-day, 40-hour week.

How did it suddenly become possible? The interests of union members were aligned with those of an entrepreneur with foresight: Henry Ford. In 1926, less than a century ago, the adoption of the five-day week as the norm in car factories can largely be attributed to Ford, whose forward-thinking approach recognized that a satisfied and well-compensated workforce could lead to increased productivity and consumer demand – which, in turn, benefited the company’s bottom line. This alignment of interests marked a pivotal moment in labor history and contributed to improved working conditions and the emergence of a burgeoning middle class in the United States.

Then, in 1938, the US government made it the norm for all workers across the country. With the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), new labor standards and regulations were established. It aimed to set minimum wage and maximum hour standards to improve working conditions and protect workers’ rights. The new standardized workweek was spread over five days (typically Monday through Friday), with a maximum of eight hours per day. This created the modern weekend, with Saturday usually spent going to the mall and doing grocery shopping for the whole week (with the family car, of course). It is not an exaggeration to say that the economy, cultural norms and society as a whole have been shaped by the automobile.

Could this alignment happen again and make the 4-day workweek the new norm?

Can the UAW be at the forefront of history again? Well, the economy does not revolve as much around the automobile industry anymore. And there are far fewer workers involved. This is clearly reflected in Detroit’s population: America’s automotive capital had nearly 2 million inhabitants in 1950 but only has 640,000 today. The UAW may still have hundreds of thousands of members (across different industries now) but it is a shadow of what it once was. So-called “right-to-work” states like Texas, Florida and Arizona, where employees have the right to choose whether or not to join a union, have attracted new automobile manufacturing plants. For example, Tesla’s factories are all located in “right-to-work” states such as Texas.

Furthermore, the world of work is very different from what it was a century ago when a lot of women stayed at home to look after children and the elderly (at least, many of the wives of automobile workers did). In fact, to be able to work five days a week, it was best to rely on someone else staying at home or working part-time to carry the unpaid burden of domestic care. By contrast, today, the overwhelming majority of women work full-time in the US and more workers are employed in services than in industry. The demands of domestic work still fall heavily on the shoulders of women (particularly mothers), who are often prevented from working full-time or whose lives are made difficult by the demands of a full-time job.

In short, there are few reasons to believe that the new battles for better working conditions that influence the whole labor force will come from automobile workers. Yet, the UAW did demand the 4-day workweek in 2023 in its historic strike against GM, Ford and Stellantis. In this demand, it was joined by millions of other workers in services (including many women), whose well-being would be improved significantly by a new standard. Juggling paid and unpaid work leads to burnout, and poorer mental and physical health. There are good historic reasons why the 4-day workweek has momentum today, after years of Covid-induced work disruptions and imbalances.

Should the missed opportunity of 2023 be mourned?

In late October 2023, the UAW reached a deal with Ford, Stellantis, and GM, respectively. Union leaders gave their approval to deals that include pay increases of 30% for full-time employees and could increase pay substantially for other workers. This represents a significant win for the union’s efforts to reverse 15 years of concessions. The fact that the union dropped the 4-day workweek in exchange for higher wages suggests that it held considerable leverage in the negotiations. While the 4-day workweek represents a desirable goal for many workers seeking an improved work-life balance, the pursuit of higher wages in a context of rising inflation may have been deemed a more immediate priority.

Nevertheless, even though the 4-day workweek wasn’t achieved in 2023, the UAW’s relentless push for it has brought this idea closer to becoming a mainstream concept than ever before. In today’s tight labor market, companies are increasingly motivated to explore innovative ways to attract and retain workers. So, the 4-day workweek remains a topic of discussion and potential negotiation in the future, thus ensuring the final say has not been had in the ongoing evolution of labor standards. While this year did not see the 4-day workweek implemented, it has contributed to setting the stage for further discussions and potential changes in the coming years.

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