Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #24 September 4, 2001

Labor Day, 2001: Millions of People
Work Harder, Have Less Leisure Time

By Harry Kelber

On Labor Day 2001, let’s take a close look at what’s happened to working families. It’s not a pretty picture.

During the 1990s, U.S. workers added nearly one week to their work year — an increase of 36 hours each year on the job. That’s according to a new report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency that examines workplace trends worldwide.

The ILO estimates that Americans work 137 hours, or about 3 ½ weeks, more per year than Japanese workers; 260 hours or 6 ½ weeks more than the British, and 499 hours or 12 ½ weeks more than Germans. “It’s unique to Americans that they continue to increase their working hours, while hours are declining in other industrial nations,” Lawrence J. Johnson, the economist who oversaw the ILO report, told The New York Times.

The 12-hour shift with weekend work at straight time is now standard in our steel, rubber, auto, chemical, transportation, plastic and other manufacturing industries. Continuous, round-the-clock production makes good sense for the employer; it keeps costly equipment operating non-stop and fosters competitiveness in global markets. But what does it do to workers?

Research by safety experts shows that many accidents occur toward the end of a 12-hour shift, when alertness and decision-making ability are at low ebb. In transportation, for example, it is estimated that 15 to 20% of all accidents are related to fatigue.

The 12-hour workday is hell on family life. How can you relax with family and friends, take the kids for an outing, or even go to church services if you’re scheduled to work through the weekend? If youčre off several days during the week, the kids may be in school, your spouse may be working, your friends are unavailable, and you’ve got to rest up for the next 12-hour shift.

Life is always more complicated for families dependent on two jobs, but it’s much worse when one of the wage-earners is on the 12-hour shift. “Quality time” to function and grow as a family is vanishing before our very eyes. Child care problems increase, as does their cost, particularly for single parents. Whatever happened to the eight-hour day and the time when we could claim weekends as our own?

Worst of all is the rotating 12-hour shift. One week, you’re working days; the next week, nights. The damage that this inhumane system does to workers’ physical and mental health is severe. It makes a family more likely to become dysfunctional and destroys many a marriage.

We used to think that technology was going to make our working lives easier. Some economists held out the promise of a 30-hour workweek. Now, wečre working longer and harder and we’re more scared that we’ll lose our jobs.

With an average of only 13 vacation days per year, we lag far behind the rest of the world. Italy leads with 42 days, followed by France (37), Germany (35), Brazil (28), Canada (26), and South Korea and Japan (25), according to the World Tourist Organization.

After decades of struggle, a lot of working people achieved their dream of eight hours of work, eight hours of rest and eight hours to do whatever they chose. But many of our unions have surrendered the eight-hour workday — without much of a struggle.

At the past four AFL-CIO biennial conventions, not a single resolution was introduced against the 12-hour workday. The issue wasn’t raised by any convention delegate or mentioned in any Executive Council document.

A major reason for the phenomenal organizing success in the 1930s was that CIO unions promoted the eight-hour day and the 40-hour week at a time when most people were working 60 or more hours, including a half-day on Saturday. But today, union leaders accept the longer workweek to accommodate the needs of employers, not workers. When the AFL-CIO holds its next convention (Dec. 3-6 in Las Vegas), will any delegate have a kind word to say about the eight-hour day?

If the answer is “no,” it shouldn’t be hard to figure out why millions of working people feel that unions are irrelevant to their lives.

“Inside the AFL-CIO” can be viewed at every Tuesday. Our “LaborTalk” column appears every Monday.

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