Hours of Work: Moving Beyond Gridlock

 In its tendency to foster unity, its capacity to evoke both political and trade union struggles, and its close relationship with the question of who would control workers' lives on and off the job, the shorter-hours demand stood apart [from struggles over compensation].

David Roediger and Philip Foner, Our Own Time
At a little past noon on October 7, 1978, Frank Schiff, Vice President and Chief Economist of the Committee for Economic Development, addressed a conference on Work Time and Employment convened by the U.S. National Commission for Manpower Policy. Assembled at the Capitol Hill Quality Inn in Washington, D.C., the conference attendees were indeed a quality collection of noted academics, high level civil servants, and influential spokespersons for business and labor. Schiff was responding to a paper on "Policies to Reduce Fixed Costs of Employment" that economist Robert Eisner had just presented. Speaking of the goal of adapting to individual preferences for worktime and leisure, Schiff remarked,

To achieve this goal, Professor Eisner places major stress on employment subsidies and tax credits, essentially to offset the effect of public policy and institutional work arrangements that create a bias against flexible work arrangements. This is clearly one possible approach, but it should be emphasized that it is by no means the only way to deal with the problem. Other possible options include direct efforts to reduce the existing institutional biases against flexible work time patterns -- for example, by relating the cost of particular fringes more to hours worked than to the number of employees, or by relevant changes in the computation of experience ratings.
On the face of it, Schiff's comment stands out from the 445 page conference report as such profound good sense that it no doubt was quickly and profoundly forgotten by all and sundry present -- perhaps even by Schiff. In the 18 years since that prestigious Washington, D.C. conference, much has changed. But the institutional bias in favour of overtime has remained. Rarely have economists, shorter work time advocates or policy analysts echoed the call to directly reduce or remove the long hours bias of public policy.[9]

To give a bit more context on the timing of the Work Time and Employment conference, remember that 1978 marked the beginning of a Carter administration public relations crusade against inflation. In this crusade, unemployment came to be seen as a weapon for fighting inflation, rather than a political liability or social curse. The theory of the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) offered both a convenient excuse for tolerating high unemployment and a self-serving explanation of inflation. Worrying about unemployment became unfashionable. Worrying about working too much, became downright foolish.

Let us return for a moment to that October day in 1978 and indulge in a bit of economic fantasy. Suppose that Frank Schiff's comment about removing the institutional biases had seized the imagination of the conferees. Imagine that reporters from the major news media were present at the conference and Schiff's offhand suggestion became the subject of front page feature stories and soul-searching editorials. Imagine that a national debate broke out across North America about the nature of work and the illegitimacy of government regulations that prolonged work beyond the desires of individuals. Imagine the emergence of a mass labor/civil rights movement demanding a real, effective limit on work time and insisting on the repeal of legislation that enforced excessive work.

Imagine the victory of that movement.

Ask yourself: "Would I be better off today if those changes had occurred?"

Now ask: "What will happen over the next 18 years if we fail to seize this moment for removing the institutional biases against shorter work time?"