Volume 39, Number 3: May/June 2005

Why is the 35-Hour Work Week in Retreat?

In February and March, 2005, hundreds of thousands of workers protested in the streets of Paris and other large cities against the current conservative government’s attempt to erode the 35-hour week. So far, however, these protests have not prevented premier minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin from realizing his plans for the reform of the 35-hour legislation. What is remarkable about the latest development in the struggle for work-time reduction is that, despite the modest success of the 35-hour week in reducing the level of unemployment, French employers and their representatives have managed to put into public circulation the idea that longer working hours create more jobs.

In a similar way, after a strike of the German metalworkers’ union IG Metal to extend the 35-hour week to eastern Germany failed in 2003, German capital went on the offensive, initiating a debate about the “costs” of the 35-hour week in the German metal industry. Here, again, employers successfully argued against existing empirical evidence that longer working hours would create more jobs. Siemens, one of the leading German corporations, was subsequently able to pressure IG Metal to consent to a local extension of working hours to prevent jobs from being relocated to Eastern Europe.

From Germany, the pressure to raise working hours diffused to other European countries, including neighbouring Austria, where working hours in the metal sector has never fallen below 38.5 hours per week. But as one representative of the Austrian Federation of Industry made clear, even if the campaign did not materialize in longer working hours, the trade-union demand for shorter working hours is now effectively off the table–despite persistently high unemployment rates.

Discrediting work-time reduction as a means of redistributing employment is already well established in North American public consciousness. This widespread belief has helped prevent the emergence of significant resistance against the “silent” rise in working hours in the U.S. over the last two decades. It also limited the protest against the Conservative Party reform of the Employment Standards Act in Ontario, which allowed for individuals to work a legal 60-hour week in 2000. Although the 60-hour week was subsequently repealed by the Liberal government in 2003, it is significant that the proposed current reform‚ in France also aims for individual exceptions.

In his book “Modern Times, Ancient Hours: Working Lives in the Twenty-First Century” (Verso, 2003), Pietro Basso makes an explicit link between the increasing pressure to extend working hours and the rise of neoliberalism. By doing so, he criticizes not only mainstream accounts of the development of working time–including the belief that the fall in working hours occurs as a result of growing productivity–but also contests explanations of American exceptionality that make cultural differences rather than class struggle responsible for longer working hours in the U.S.

Against the many commentators who still maintain that European capitalism is distinct from North American capitalism, Basso insists that the rule of capital is the same everywhere. Moreover, the balance of power among the classes can only be transformed by class resistance. As Basso states: “The European proletariat has (until now) been more combatitive and better organized than its American counterpart–more capable of resisting the globalizing course of “neoliberalism.” However, if we take off our rose-coloured glasses, we cannot help but see that the “law of the wolves”–the supreme law of globalized capitalism–is progressively imposing itself in Europe, too, even if Europeans like to think they are “different.”

Basso made this statement in 1998, the year the book was first published in Italian. This was the same year the first part of the 35- hour legislation was adopted in France. Since then many events, including the reform of the 35-hour legislation in France and the granting of local exceptions to the 35-hour week in Western Germany, have suggested that Basso’s analysis needs to be read carefully for the warning it contains.

Christoph Hermann studied political science at the University of Vienna and York University in Toronto, and now works as senior research fellow at the Working Life Research Centre in Vienna.

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