The Guardian May 24, 2000


USA: Shorter hours possible and overdue

by Fred Gaboury

May 1, 2000, found US workers working longer than their counterparts in 
other industrialised nations.

A recent study by the International Labour Organisation says the increase 
in the annual number of working hours in the US from 1,883 in 1980 to 1,966 
in 1997 "runs contrary to a worldwide trend that has seen hours of work 
remaining steady or declining in recent years".

While annual working hours in the US has increased by 83 hours since the 
1980s, they have declined to 1,889 in Japan, to 1,560 in Germany and to 
1,656 in France, with workers in Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands 
working some 1,675 hours annually.

According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS), workers in US 
manufacturing industry put in even longer hours than those reported in the 
ILO study.

Taken as a whole, the average US worker employed in the manufacture of 
durable goods worked 43.5 hours (5.3 of them overtime) per week in December 
1999, for a total of 2,262 hours a year.

It's even worse in the nation's auto plants and steel mills. Last December 
the men and women who build motor vehicles and car bodies worked an average 
of 46.2 hours per week (7.5 hours overtime) equal to 2,400 hours per year.

Their counterparts in the nation's steel mills worked an average of 43.5 
hours per week (6.8 hours overtime) or 2,262 hours per year.

Employers like overtime because it's cheaper than hiring and training new 
workers despite the time-and-a-half penalty for hours worked in excess of 
40 hours in any week.

The BLS says that in March 1999 wages made up 67.5 percent of the total 
compensation costs of machine operators, fabricators and labourers.

The rest represents the combined cost of vacations, health insurance, 
retirement benefits and payroll taxes.

Almost all of these are "capped", meaning that employers only pay for a 
fixed number of hours or on a fixed amount of wages.

Add fixed costs for plant maintenance and property taxes and it's easy to 
see why employers opt for paying overtime rather than adding new workers.

And there is another, more basic, reason. A large number of unemployed 
workers knocking at the factory gate does wonders to curb militancy and 
hold down wages and other costs. And there's a bonus as well  it gives 
employers additional opportunity to divide the working class by pitting the 
unemployed against the employed.

So what is to be done? First some arithmetic: some 18.8 million production 
workers are employed in US manufacturing industries today, each working an 
average of 5.3 hours overtime per week. That comes to nearly nine billion 
hours per year.

Divide that figure by the average weekly straight time hours of production 
workers (37.8), it gives the equivalent of 2.6 million full-time jobs. Just 
think how many jobs could be created if the workweek was reduced to 35-or 
even 30-hours with no cut in income!

It's possible  and long over due. Labour costs for machine operators, 
fabricators and labourers rose by 36 per cent between 1987 and March 1999. 
In the same period the value of manufactured goods increased by more than 
55 percent.

All of which means that for labour to get back the same share of value it 
produced in 1987 would require the creation of 1.3 million new jobs at 
today's wages. That would go far in paying for the 2.5 million jobs that 
would be created by the elimination of overtime.

The rest could come from the profits of corporations. After all, profits 
are created by workers who have just as much right to them as do those who 
own the factories and mills!

True, the demand for shorter work time is not high on the agenda of US 
workers. But the seeds are there as recent strikes in the auto industry 
demanding the hiring of more workers show.

* * *
People's Weekly World, paper of Communist Party, USA (abridged)

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