A century after launching the campaign for an eight-hour workday, the US labor movement faces challenges that could determine its long-term survival. While automation threatens massive displacement and employer resistance to aggressive organizing turns union-busting into a growth industry, business pushes new schemes to limit the basic right to organize. One of the most insidious is the so-called "paycheck protection" initiative. Being introduced into state legislatures, it would require unions to get permission from each member before using any dues for political purposes. If the strategy succeeds, unions could be effectively muzzled while corporations remain free to influence elections.
In a way, this isn’t new. Congressional amendments to the National Labor Relations Act and federal court rulings have undermined organizing rights for decades. Often favoring "employer free speech," government looks the other way as thousands lose their jobs each year just for backing union drives.
In the matter of "paycheck protection," business also has another edge – mass opinion. Not only does the general public appear to support it by a two-to-one margin; union members themselves are in favor. In other words, most no longer trust their own representatives to effectively counter corporate political offensives on their behalf.
This fall from grace is actually a case of collective amnesia, brought on by the cultural emphasis of consumerism and individual achievement over participation and cooperation. Unions are widely portrayed today as just another special interest group, one routinely defamed in popular media as corrupt, selfish, or both.
But the true, largely ignored history of the labor movement tells a very different story – a dedicated effort, despite often ruthless opposition, to shorten working hours, obtain a living wage, abolish child labor, eliminate unemployment, and win reforms like Social Security, equal rights, and medical care for all.
At the end of the 19th century, the conflict between business and labor came to a head over the campaign for an eight-hour day. As one of the movement’s most famous martyrs, Albert Parsons, explained in 1879, "We want to reduce the worst disability of poverty by reducing the hours of labor; by the distributing of work that is to be done more equally among the workingmen, and consequently reducing competition for the opportunity to work."
But Parsons knew that even winning a shorter workday was only a stopgap measure. "Employers will put labor-saving machinery to work instead of the higher-priced laborers," he predicted. "The laborers will then for the same reason that they reduced the hours to eight, have to reduce them to six hours per day." He also linked this struggle to the business emphasis on keeping wages low and finding new markets abroad, arguing that such a strategy would ultimately depress purchasing power and destroy jobs.
One hundred years later, that analysis is still on target. Under the impacts of "free trade" and increased automation, millions of jobs are at risk. Meanwhile, computers and other "labor-saving" machines are allowing companies to eliminate whole job categories, while employing a smaller work force for longer hours. In Europe, this trend has led to a new rallying cry: Work Less, and Everyone Works. In Japan, the government has made shorter hours a national goal, realizing that it deals with technological displacement and also stimulates the service economy.
Echoing the eight-hour day campaign, a US movement to reduce the workweek could be labor’s key to recapturing public confidence. Why? Partly because the lack of free time has become a serious issue for parents and communities. Along with a decline in the amount of time parents spend with their kids has come an "abandonment" syndrome, manifesting itself in increasing childhood depression, delinquency, violence, drug abuse, and even suicide.
Putting millions to work, a shorter workweek would result in dramatic savings in unemployment compensation and welfare payments. It would also demonstrate that unions are concerned with more than their own members, and potentially unite them with parenting, social justice, neighborhood, and women’s groups. The impact on culture, commerce, and family life would be profound.
Actually, the choice is pretty clear: As machines replace human beings in every industry, it’s either longer hours for the remaining "lucky" employees – with many left jobless or underemployed – or giving more people the chance to share the available work and reconnect with their families. But unless organized labor can improve its image and resist the drive to muzzle it, we may not get to decide until much more damage is done.