America’s only socialist senator and the union chief who shook Detroit say enough is enough, it’s time for a 4-day workweek

“This is not a radical idea,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told Congress this morning. The chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions is calling for the legislative branch to pick up an issue dropped nearly 70 years ago:  changing the workweek to 32 hours without docking employee pay, or in other words, a four-day week.

Sanders spoke of successes in his opening statement that other countries have had in implementing shortened work weeks, like, of course, France, but also in specific companies across the nation. 

United Auto Workers head Shawn Fain, the union leader who won historic concessions from the Big Three Detroit automakers, was a witness to the hearing who spoke of diving into the union archives and finding that the fight for a 30-hour workweek had traction in the 1930s, “but today, deep in the 21st century, we find these ideas unimaginable.”

As Sanders points out, the battle to implement a compressed workweek was already won decades prior. In 1933, the Senate had “overwhelmingly passed legislation to establish a 30-hour week,” explains Sanders, adding that intense opposition from corporate America led to that bill’s untimely demise. Soon after, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the 40-hour workweek as a standard instead as part of his “New Deal” of pro-labor reforms. Captains of capital were still outraged and launched a war to roll back New Deal reforms, arguably up until the present day. 

“This is not, needless to say, a new issue,” said Sanders, who despite his branding as a Democratic Socialist, is really at heart a social democrat in the Rooseveltian tradition, noting that this issue is “very rarely discussed” in politics, with the last hearing on it held back in 1955. Ever since then, corporate power has only solidified and despite a productivity boom as aided by AI, the shortened workweek has not gained traction in Congress. These days, 18% of Americans work more than 60-hour weeks and 40% work at least 50 hours weekly, adds Sanders. “Despite these long hours, the average worker in America makes almost 50 dollars a week less than he or she did 50 years ago after adjusting for inflation.”

The opposition to this idea was heated. For instance, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) responded to Sanders by predicting that this legislation won’t get much further. Calling the proposed new schedule “a bill that will never pass congress and be detrimental to American workers,” he acknowledged that it sounds nice, but argued that it could lead to greater difficulty in hiring for small businesses, an increase in prices, and an outsourcing of jobs. If passed, “this would be napalm upon the fire of inflation,” he said.

The week remains stubbornly traditional 

Both Sanders and Fain argued that the working class need to get their personal lives back and reap the fruits of their efforts. “Those who profit off the labor of others have all the time in the world,” Fain said at the hearing. “While those who make this country run, the people who build the products and contribute to labor have less and less time for themselves, for their families, and for their lives.” The AI boom has led to workers being 400% more productive than they were in the 1940s, adds Sanders.

Still riding a high from winning a historical UAW contract this past fall, Fain says that “time, just like every precious resource in our society, is not freely given to the working class,” He adds  that the 400,000 working class union members and 600,000 retirees that he represents likely don’t often wish they had worked more or made more money at the end of their lives but rather that “they had more time.” One of the major bargaining points that the UAW had been fighting for was a four-day workweek. Then he invoked a famous prediction from a non-socialist, center-left economist that the workweek would one day fade and wither away.

“Nearly 100 years ago, economist John Maynard Keynes spoke of the future of workers’ time,” Fain said, referring to the legendary British economist’s prediction in 1930’s “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” Keynes, who pioneered a depression-fighting theory of stimulus that took on new currency in the crises of 2008 and 2020, only saw further progress ahead, Fain said. “His worry was with all the gains in productivity, we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves and he predicted a 15-hour workweek.” Of course, Fain said, Keynes was wrong.

During the early pandemic, corporate conventions were questioned and new forms of working were reintroduced into the conversation. Some of the first major studies regarding the four-day week cropped up, and found that employees were just as productive, more satisfied, and less burnt out with the new schedule. The question becomes, if Americans are just as productive and happier with this new way of working, why not change the system? When the working week was first established decades ago, the landscape was vastly different without the aid of technology. 

“Who benefits from the exploding technology, the wealthiest people who are doing phenomenally well or working people who are following behind,” Sanders asked, explaining that the mostly CEOs have profited off of the technological boom while workers see their health and time chipped away at.

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