Shorter Hours Bill Introduced in U.S. Senate - Dundurn
Apr 04, 2024

Shorter Hours Bill Introduced in U.S. Senate

As people’s personal lives slowly return to something approaching normalcy with the waning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many will also want to know whether they should expect workplaces to return to their pre-pandemic norms.

          In a word—no. The changes in work life wrought by the pandemic and arising out of it, many of which I’ve described in my book Work Less, are of such a fundamental nature that the whole experience of going to work will likely never be the same for millions of working people, in both Canada and the U.S.

          To begin with, as horrific as the pandemic was, it did have what economists would call the “unintended positive side effect” of shifting the balance of power in the labour market away from employers and in the direction of workers, for the first time in several decades. All of a sudden, there were severe labour shortages in industries that hadn’t experienced such shortages for many years. The existence of these shortages meant that people who had long been fed up with their working conditions but who had been afraid to quit for fear they couldn’t find another job no longer felt that fear. Many did in fact quit, joining the now famous “Great Resignation.”

          Continuing labour shortages combined with the first significant wave of inflation in several decades and the election of new, more militant union leaders such as United Auto Workers’ president Shawn Fain has led to a resurgence of the long-dormant American labour movement. Last year saw the highest U.S. strike rates in 20 years, according to Labor Department figures, with 33 major strikes (those involving more than 1000 workers) keeping over 450,000 workers off the job. Most notable among these strikes was one carried out by the UAW against the three major American auto-makers, resulting in impressive wage and benefit gains for the auto workers.

           The labour movement’s newfound militancy could, among other things, result in shorter work hours over time. As I learned from researching Work Less, chronic overwork ranks high on the list of things that workers are now less prepared to put up with than they once were. Thanks to the pandemic, many people came to realize that there are more important things in life than work, such as family, friends, and one’s own physical and mental health.

          Significantly, shorter hours advocates now have a new and powerful champion, in the person of progressive Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, chair of the Senate Education and Labor Committee. Better known for his work on health care, Sanders has just introduced a bill that would move the U.S. to a 32-hour workweek over a four-year period. Among those testifying in favour of Sanders’ bill was UAW president Fain. The message coming from Sanders and Fain was virtually identical: it’s past time that overstressed workers started sharing in the benefits of greatly increased productivity through shorter hours.

          With a knack for getting publicity for his issues and bulldog tenacity, Sanders seems as likely a candidate as anyone to actually achieve shorter hours for American workers. As more than one commentator has noted, when he gets his teeth into a cause, he generally succeeds. Let us hope that this proves to be the case with shorter hours, and let’s hope, as well, that the issue finds as strong an advocate in Canada as it has in the U.S.

Copyright © Jon Peirce
Gatineau, Quebec, 2024

Jon Peirce has been writing about work hours and the world of work for much of the past twenty-five years. He has worked as a journalist, university professor, and union staffer, and is the author of Canadian Industrial Relations. Jon lives and writes in Gatineau, Quebec. Learn more here.