Home > General Politics, Labour Party News, Trade Unions > Calling time on long working weeks

Calling time on long working weeks

The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour government, SNP and UKIP all agree: the idea of the European working time directive is a bad idea. It is European federalism run amok, health and safety gone barmy and infringes the right of individuals to work for however long they want. It may be all those things, but from a social-democratic perspective it can also be considered as an issue around which to reorganize a unionized, full-time workforce, capable of wresting greater concessions from employers.

First of all, the idea that any of us mere mortals who survive (rather than wax super-wealthy) on our wages want to work more than 48 hours a week is just a tad ludicrous. I love my job, but it’s a constant bugbear of the teaching profession that we spend 8am-4pm working in school and then go home to do marking, planning and resource our lessons. I for one would rather have additional time to relax, to socialize, to spend with family, to get involved in politics and so forth – and I doubt I’m the only one.

Probably one of the major sources of illness, increasingly touted over the last ten years, is stress. In turn, stress bears a direct correspondence to having to work ever longer hours – and this has an effect on the risk to your general health. Working hours have been gradually increasing since (surprise, surprise) the 1980s – some four million people worked longer than 48 hours a week in 2002, which is an increase of 350,000 on 1992 and which today is potentially higher still. Britons work the longest hours in Europe.

Politicians denouncing the idea of the European Working Time Directive have pointed towards junior doctors and firefighters as among the groups who might ‘suffer’ from decreased working hours. Indeed, the major political parties have agreed that it’s a scandal that someone might be denied overtime opportunities simply because of some bureaucrat in Brussels. This looks at the whole issue upside down; isn’t it more scandalous that we should be compelled to work longer than 48 hours a week to feel a little affluent?

With regard to the firefighters in particular, part-time firefighters have long been the way the government has aimed at using to quell the power of the FBU, the union for full-time firefighters. If indeed we were going to limit the length of time people could work, it could only result in the employment and training of more full-timers, which is to be applauded for multiple reasons. One, it’ll help union efforts to get a fair pay deal and two, it might begin to reverse the stress-inducing labour ‘flexibility’ which employers use to cut wages, terms and conditions.

The whole notion of “post-Fordism” and the flexible labour market are markers not of an inevitable and linear historical progression from one form of production to another. Quite the opposite: they are the physical manifestation of a weak socialist movement. We failed to stop them being implemented, and we have so far failed to reverse them – but as opposition to the European Working Time Directive demonstrates, employers and politicians are likewise afraid that behind this issue lies an attempt to do just that.

Perhaps this seems an unlikely ascription since politicians mask their fear with talk of productivity, and making business competitive. That sort of language is essentially the same as pitting British against foreign workers in a race to the worst terms and conditions – after all, such terms and conditions (by the logic of those talking ‘productivity’) would make Britain infinitely competitive. In France, the whole campaign by Sarkozy was fought on just this issue, without consistent, substantive opposition from the Parti Socialiste, I may add.

If we could organise to push against these combined ideological and practical obstacles when it comes to organisation of workplaces and the basic politico-economic struggles, we might begin to get traction on some of our other issues. Claude Carpentieri writes an interesting article over at Liberal Conspiracy, asking why the Left is always on the back foot and declaring that the national political agenda is currently set by the newspapers. I think this perspective is grossly flawed, but it originates at a correct starting point; Left weakness.

Our weakness isn’t that tabloids “boo and hiss” about subjects such as welfare, social workers, foreigners and ‘political correctness’, or that Left newspapers fall over themselves to praise the British Army in Iraq, but our weakness causes those things. By being disorganised when it comes to achieving practical concessions from bosses we can see, or re-shaping the labour market to make it more open to strong unions, we’re forever gifting the initiative to the other side. Socialists and trades unions are liable to get denounced whatever we do, so we may as well give the tabloids something good to rant about.

By simple virtue of being organised and instituting our own ideas and practices (Gramsci’s hegemony to the rescue!) we’ll begin limiting the effects of tabloid journalism, whatever they say. Indeed, by attempting to re-shape the labour market after a fashion we find more conducive to our aims, we may find that we rebuild the NUJ and the printers’ unions from without. That day is a long way off, of course, but our fightback can start by a twofold push – first for the working time directive opt-out to be cancelled, and secondly for a labour-friendly reorganisation of those services likely to be affected.

Stretching far beyond merely the firefighters, this sort of issue takes in the entire workforce – and the General Council of the TUC would need to co-ordinate efforts between different unions. The effects, however, would be far reaching and the gains might reverse some of the last thirty years of union failures, just as laissez faire orthodoxy is being reversed.

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  1. March 17, 2009 at 8:42 pm

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