The case for the 28-hour work week
Germany already has a 35-hour work week. Now, the country's most powerful union, IG Metall, is demanding its 3.9 million workers in the electrical and metalworking industries be allowed to work a 28-hour week for two years. The union staged several walkouts to make its point, and is gearing up for nationwide strikes if its demands aren't met.
Americans should take note.
The standard work week in the States is 40 hours. The average American clocked 1,780 hours on the job in 2016, which makes us something of an anomaly: We don't just put in considerably more work than the Germans (who averaged 1,360 hours per worker in 2016), we also put in more hours than the French, the British, the Canadians, the Dutch, and others. More than that, annual hours per worker steadily fell in those countries over the last half century. America saw its hours fall until about 1980, when the trend flatlined. Our hours have been stagnant ever since.
An economy with high productivity is supposed to deliver better standards of living, either in the form of higher incomes or more leisure hours. Most Western countries have seen a mix of both. Americans, to a large degree, have gotten neither.
The distribution of working hours in America is also incredibly uneven across demographics. Perverse as it may seem, longer hours have become a mark of privilege in the U.S. labor force: The well-educated, the highly paid, white workers, and male workers all log in the most. Why? Because in an economy where increased overall productivity doesn't result in increased wages or leisure time, working obscenely long hours to rake in more money is the one surefire way to increase your standard of living.
This all brings us back to the length of the work week.
Boosting the overall demand for goods and services is one way to get more people into the workforce. Unfortunately, America has not done a good job of this since 1980, and Europe has probably done an even shoddier job since 2008. The other option is to spread the available work out among more people. One way to do this is by shortening the work week.
A shorter work week would force employers to hire more people to meet the same amount of market demand. It would also force employers to spread hours more evenly between men and women, white workers and workers of color, and between the more and less educated. But there's a catch: If everyone works fewer hours but hourly wages don't rise, people could see a big loss of income. So a shorter work week would need to be accompanied by hikes in the minimum wage.
Unfortunately, not only does America still have a 40-hour work week, it's spottily enforced, and vast numbers of workers fall outside the requirements for overtime pay. The Obama administration made a few attempts to apply overtime laws more broadly, but those efforts have been stymied so far by the Republicans and the Trump White House. On top of that, we rely disproportionately on employers (rather than the government) to provide workers with health care and retirement benefits. Even if a business' employees do qualify for overtime, it's often cheaper to just pay those existing employees more than it is to take on the additional overhead costs of yet another worker.
Another option for dividing work up into more widely shared, bite-sized chunks is increasing paid vacation and family leave. IG Metall's call for a temporary 28-hour work week arguably serves this function. The idea is that all of the union's workers could take their two years of shorter work weeks whenever they wanted to — presumably coinciding with life events like the birth of a child or a sick family member. Indeed, if workers take the shorter work week under those circumstances, the union wants employers to boost hourly pay to top off any lost income. Democrats in Washington have proposed national legislation that would distribute paid benefits for a certain amount of family leave. But it has little chance of passage at the moment.
So, yes, a shorter work week could do Americans a whole lot of good. But U.S. employees may not have the leverage to demand such a change. More than anything, leverage is what German workers have going for them, and what allows them to demand a 28-hour work week with such conviction. Germany's economy is booming, so labor is scarce and employers have to fight over employees. But just as important, unions are massively powerful there. Official union membership rates aren't that high — though still way higher than America's — but unions' bargaining arrangements mean they're negotiating terms for about two-thirds of the country's workforce. German law also requires that half of all corporate boards must be representatives of the company's workers.
These days, a 35-hour work week probably seems otherworldly to most Americans, much less a 28-hour one. But the Germans are a good example of how it can be done. We'll need a lot of political organizing and policy changes to get there.