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The Shorter Workweek and a Revolutionary Program for Working Hours

Shortening the workweek has become an issue in the French presidential campaign. Workers there won a 35-hour standard in 2000, but the bosses circumvent the law. Many workers are now demanding a 32-hour workweek. While the French system differs that of the United States, the Marxist argument for reducing working time spelled out here — and how to win that demand — applies to workers everywhere.

Camille Münzer

December 6, 2021
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We must work more: that is the categorical statement from the bosses and the bourgeois politicians. In his presidential address of November 9, 2021, French president Emmanuel Macron, for instance, asserted that “it is through work, and through more work, that we will be able to preserve our social model.”

Macron is talking about simply extending the retirement age and people’s working hours. But others are more specific: they want to increase weekly working time by relaxing the law, adopted in France in February 2000, that set 35 hours as the standard legal limit for a workweek and made anything above that overtime. Take, for example, Xavier Bertrand — a potential right-wing presidential candidate and former minister of Labor, Employment, and Health who now heads the regional council of Hauts-de-France. He wants to go back to the old 39-hour law to “liberate” working time, which has been the leitmotiv of the right for a long time. In other words, the Right wants to abolish the rules set by the law, giving companies free rein and tipping the relationship of forces unfavorably against workers. Right-wing stalwart Marine Le Pen of the National Rally also favors a switch back to 39 hours, through sector-by-sector agreements.

In short, it’s about getting employees to work more but earn less.

Meanwhile, there is a debate over changing the 35-hour law to 32 hours. On the Left, a shift to 32 hours is seen as a way to create jobs. Among others, the CGT trade union confederation, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise,1Translator’s note: La France Insoumise (LFI, Unbowed France or Unsubmissive France) is a social-democratic populist party founded in 2016 by Mélenchon, its candidate in the 2022 presidential elections. and Fabien Roussel, national secretary of the French Communist Party, have put it in their programs or are campaigning for the change. When it comes to Europe Ecology–The Greens, there is still no consensus: Sandrine Rousseau, the well-known economist who ran in the party’s presidential primaries, says it is necessary to move to a four-day workweek; Yannick Jadot, who won the primaries, disagrees, defending at most a “citizens’ agreement” on working time.

The health and economic crises have brought working time back into the spotlight. But it is not new; it has long been a social issue at the heart of the relationship between classes. What is the position of revolutionaries on the question of working time? And why is the demand for 32 hours fair but not enough?

Working Time Is at the Heart of the Relationship between the Classes

Labor time crystallizes the relationship between the classes. For Karl Marx, the value of labor power is determined by the labor time necessary for its production — as with any other commodity. If that time is six hours, then the worker needs to work six hours to produce his own labor power. But that working time is not how much time the worker actually works. Wage earners work for longer than the time necessary simply to reproduce their existence (i.e., their ability to survive): the work is prolonged by additional time, surplus labor, which is the source of the capitalists’ profits.

Thus, according to Marx, when wage earners sell their labor power, they do so for the equivalent of a given amount of time. This forces the capitalists to find ways to extend the time during which the wage earner is subject to the bosses’ orders, and to make the use of that time as efficient as possible. In other words, under capitalism working time is a period of submission.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the history of working time can be thought of as the history of the struggle between the desire of employers to extend the working day and that of the workers’ movement to reduce it. This struggle also takes the form of a conflict between how employers use their employees’ time and how employees themselves use their time. That is, the bosses seek not only to extend the duration of working time but also to control the actual work employees do during that time to make it as profitable for capitalism as possible (through, for example, the sequencing of work tasks). Today, as telework takes greater hold and as it seems to be the wave of the future, this might be done using remote control devices that allow the bosses to monitor and control the time employees use their computers at home.

In studying the workday, Marx criticized the illusion of some sort of unified time: while the workday appears to be homogeneous, linear, and continuous, he explained that it is actually split in two between the working time necessary for the production of labor power and the surplus labor expropriated by the capitalists. It is for this very reason that the reduction of working time has been at the core of the workers’ movement’s demands since its beginnings. And it is the source for Marx’s recognition that in this demand lies the potential source of liberation from work.

Free time, Marx explained, is time freed from the grip of capital. It is time for other activities that matter, such as the arts, science, and love. Not only is reducing working time necessary, but technological developments make it possible — more can be produced using the same amount of time. Under capitalism, though, all time is potentially expropriated for the valorization of capital. The capitalists not only push for working time to be as long as possible but also try to make our free time theirs as well. As the economist Michel Husson reminded us, “One cannot be freed from the bondage of wage labor only half-time: to be exploited, to be forced into alienated labor, even if only for two hours a day, is to be enslaved the rest of the time.”

Wasting Your Life to Stay Alive: The Reality of Working Hours in France

From the outset, the workers’ movement has taken up the question of the workday and made it one of its main demands. We see this in France’s history of working hours, in which each law has responded to a push from the workers’ movement or revolutionary events, beginning with the law of March 22, 1841, which put limits on child labor in industry. (Eight hours a day for children ages eight to 12, and 12 hours a day for those ages 12 to 16). It was one of the first measures to limit working hours in French industry. The law of 1848, a product of that year’s February revolution that was analyzed by Marx in The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, remains the foundation of the modern conception of working time, since it established the contemporary temporal frameworks: day, week, rest days each week, and so on.

It was not until another 50 years had passed that the workday in France was again shortened, but not for everyone. The law of November 2, 1892, limited the working hours of women and children. Then the Millerand law of March 30, 1900, set out a reduction of the workday to 10 hours over a six-year period for men and women. Laws enacted in 1905 and 1906 introduced the eight-hour day in the mines and compulsory days off each week.

Finally, the fear of a revolutionary contagion in Europe following the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 pushed the French bourgeoisie to make another concession to the workers’ movement in 1919, when the eight-hour day was introduced across the board, with an implicit weekly working time of 48 hours.

The history of working hours from 1841 to 1900 shows that it took half a century to arrive at the 10-hour workday. In volume 1 of Capital, Marx put at the center of this history not laws and their enactment but rather the relationship of forces:

These minutiae, which, with military uniformity, regulate by stroke of the clock the times, limits, pauses of the work were not at all the products of Parliamentary fancy. They developed gradually out of circumstances as natural laws of the modern mode of production. Their formulation, official recognition, and proclamation by the State, were the result of a long struggle of classes.

This protracted class struggle has resulted in a halving of working hours since the mid-19th century. Economists calculate that the average annual working time has been reduced from 3,000 hours a year to 1,600 hours in the early 2000s. As for weekly working hours, the first period of reduction was from 1890 to 1936, after the laws on the 10-hour day, and then the eight-hour day, and then on weekly days off. Then, in the period from the 1960s to the 1982 Auroux reforms,2Translator’s note: The 1982 Auroux laws, named for Jean Auroux (minister of labor from 1981 to 1983 in the Socialist government of President François Mitterand), obliges French employers to negotiate annually on pay and working time at the company or workplace level where there is a trade union delegate (meaning workplaces with more than 50 employees). There are penalties for noncompliance, but no obligation to reach an actual agreement. the length of the workweek was reduced.

While the Left today is raising the demand for 32 hours, it seems to have learned nothing from the transition to the 35-hour week that began in 2000. And the economic context today is not the same as it was then. As Michel Husson wrote in 2004, the reduction in working hours in the 2000s created between 350,000 and 500,000 jobs. However, a 10 percent reduction in working time (from 39 to 35 hours) did not increase employment by 10 percent. Several factors explain this, according to Husson. On the one hand, employees working in small companies (where there was no collective bargaining on working time) were not affected by this measure. On the other hand, the 35-hour workweek has made work more intense and more flexible. The bosses have reorganized work to compensate for the reduction in working time: we work just as much, or more intensively, so that they can avoid hiring new staff. We can see it in the productivity figures: in France, the move to a 35-hour workweek has meant a significant increase in productivity.3Translator’s note: Productivity in this context refers to the amount of goods and services produced relative to the inputs used in producing them. This is not to be confused with labor productivity, which is the ratio of output of goods and services to the working time devoted to their production.

Take the automotive industry, for example. Peugeot’s management negotiated the transition to 35 hours at the end of the 2000s. Rather than improving working conditions and adding new workers, it has instead resulted in more flexible working time as a result of annualizing how hours are counted. Employees may work up to six days a week, and sometimes on holidays and Sundays, when there are a lot of orders. These extra days worked are compensated for with temporary layoffs when orders fall, in a sector where work is seasonal. So, Peugeot workers work an average of 35 hours a week, but there are periods when they work far more.

Added to this is the problem of overtime, which of course is paid at a premium. If wages were sufficient, employees might be in a position to refuse overtime. But consider the example of the aeronautics subcontractor Ateliers de la Haute Garonne, whose employees put in 38.6 hours a week. The bosses pay 25 percent more for those three-and-a-half hours over the 35, and the bosses use that as an excuse not to raise the hourly rate.

Today in France, most employees work more than 35 hours a week; according to national statistics, full-time employees work an average of 39 hours a week. A 2015 study also shows that only 25 percent of employees work 35 hours and 31.7 percent work more than 40 hours a week.

The Left’s 32 Hours

The CGT trade union confederation is once again campaigning for the 32-hour week, basing its arguments on what has been done in some other countries and on the example of some companies where the 32-hour week has been implemented on the basis of collective-bargaining agreements. On the CGT website, the Montreuil local claims that working time has been “inexorably reduced” thanks to productivity gains, celebrating it as part of humanity’s development. This turns reducing working time into a question of redistributing productivity gains in a fair way between labor and capital. This, goes the argument, would also make it possible to improve workers’ living conditions and protect the environment.

Even if the idea of reducing working time is fair, however, the means proposed by the CGT are largely insufficient: the confederation proposes that a law be enacted to allow for negotiations by sector or company. On the one hand, waiting for a law means that negotiations on 32 hours will be postponed to an uncertain future (a new parliamentary majority?). It means relying on parliamentary debates rather than the mobilization of workers. On the other hand, the employees risk getting ripped off in these company-by-company or industry-by-industry negotiations, especially in a context that is unfavorable to labor disputes. To wait for collective bargaining to produce a positive result for employees is expecting too much of that process.

Mélenchon clearly understands that the weekly working time of full-time employees in France far exceeds 35 hours. This is why L’Avenir en commun (AEC, A Future Together), La France Insoumise’s program for the 2022 presidential elections, calls for enforcing the 35-hour workweek by increasing overtime hours. But as already noted, the increase in overtime has already happened. Mélenchon wants to increase overtime pay, which he says would discourage employers from using it — but he says nothing about how that could be done. To that, the AEC program adds the call for a sixth week of paid vacation for French workers and the convening of a “national conference on the sharing of working time and the impact of technological progress” to pave the way to 32 hours. It is difficult to see how such a program could be implemented other than by Mélenchon’s coming to power.

Distribute Work among All

Just like the CGT program, Mélenchon ignores the question of the relationship of forces within companies and the mixed results of the 35-hour week. For both, the question of working hours is one of striking a good bargain between bosses and workers so that workers can enjoy a “better distribution” of profits. None of these proposals really respond to the problem of the decrease of working hours and the creation of jobs, that is, to the problem of the capitalist organization of work in which some people carry overwhelming workloads while others suffer unemployment and precariousness.

It is, though, possible to get to 32 hours. To do so, we would have to divide working time among everyone, which would make it possible to create jobs and reduce structural unemployment. It would also reduce stress at work and improve work-life balance. In short, it would be the opposite of what work is like today under capitalism, with some people spending their lives at the office or in the factory while others suffer unemployment and job insecurity.

The recent victory at Neuhauser’s industrial bakery in Folschviller, Moselle, where workers won 32 hours after several months of struggle, shows on a small scale that it is possible to reduce working time. In September 2021, factory management wanted to impose a work speedup after an increase in orders and the opening of new markets. The factory employees were working 37.4 hours a week, Monday through Friday, with three teams working eight-hour shifts (3×8). On Fridays, workers were spending 20 hours cleaning the production lines, but management wanted to cut that to 10 hours to free up time for production. The CSE, through the CGT union, went to court to get that plan canceled.4Translator’s note: Comités Social et Economique (CSE) are employee representative bodies in companies with at least 11 employees that are funded by the employers, who also participate. Employees elected to CSEs are afforded a set number of hours a month for participation, and the law mandates that at least six meetings take place per year.

This legal standoff happened after a wage dispute that provoked a strike, which spread to four of the company’s sites. In mid-November, the court ruled in favor of the employees and blocked the plan of management, which first had to go through an information-consultation process with the CSE, then an expert report, and so on. All that forced the bosses to abandon their initial plan and accept the union’s proposal to a 32-hour workweek, bring on 25 new workers, and keep the current wage level. Employees who had been working 37.5 hours a week will now work 32 hours, and get paid at the rate for 35 hours. The work is reorganized to have five teams working continuously rotating eight-hour shifts (5×8).

This example shows that a transition to 32 hours is possible when a relationship of forces is constructed, using labor law, that serves the workers’ interest. At the national level, we need a plan to fight for 32 hours, with no wage cuts, without waiting for a law to be passed by some possible parliamentary majority and without having to negotiate company by company. This is part of the campaign program of Anasse Kazib, the revolutionary rail worker running for the French presidency; he works in a 3×8 setup at SNCF, the French national railway.

Reducing working hours in order to share work among all is not some utopian dream, as the global history of working hours shows — provided, of course, that we take up what Marx called the “long struggle of classes.”

First published in French on December 4 in RP Dimanche.

Translation and adaptation by Scott Cooper

Notes

Notes
1 Translator’s note: La France Insoumise (LFI, Unbowed France or Unsubmissive France) is a social-democratic populist party founded in 2016 by Mélenchon, its candidate in the 2022 presidential elections.
2 Translator’s note: The 1982 Auroux laws, named for Jean Auroux (minister of labor from 1981 to 1983 in the Socialist government of President François Mitterand), obliges French employers to negotiate annually on pay and working time at the company or workplace level where there is a trade union delegate (meaning workplaces with more than 50 employees). There are penalties for noncompliance, but no obligation to reach an actual agreement.
3 Translator’s note: Productivity in this context refers to the amount of goods and services produced relative to the inputs used in producing them. This is not to be confused with labor productivity, which is the ratio of output of goods and services to the working time devoted to their production.
4 Translator’s note: Comités Social et Economique (CSE) are employee representative bodies in companies with at least 11 employees that are funded by the employers, who also participate. Employees elected to CSEs are afforded a set number of hours a month for participation, and the law mandates that at least six meetings take place per year.
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