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UAW Strike Reignites Debate Over Four-Day Workweek  

The United Auto Workers’ push for a four-day workweek as part of its high-profile nationwide strike has fueled renewed interest in an issue that many American workers have rallied around since the 2020 pandemic.

calendar 660670 640The UAW is bargaining for a shortened workweek that would entail auto workers putting in 32 hours for four days and getting paid the same as if they had worked 40 hours, as well as receiving overtime for labor that exceeds 32 hours, Society for Human Resource Management reports.

The UAW has a long history of fighting for a shorter workweek. It and other unions spent decades demanding labor reforms for situations that are hard to imagine today, such as a 100+ hour workweek, NPR reports. The Fair Labor Standard Act in 1938 capped workweek hours at 44 and by 1940 that dropped to 40 hours.

While working 32 hours, four-days a week may seem incomprehensible to many today, Jonathan Cutler, a sociologist at Wesleyan University, tells NPR that when unions secured a 40-hour workweek 83 years ago, it was assumed the fight would continue for a 30-hour week. “Essentially, it was understood as a continuation of a very long-term struggle,” said Cutler, who also wrote the book “Labor's Time: Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism.”

There is an expectation that the UAW’s demand for the 32-hour, four-day workweek won’t survive negotiations, but the union’s president, Shawn Fain, hasn’t conceded on the issue and has rallied his members around an idea that may resonate far beyond auto workers. “We need to get back fighting for a vision of society in which everyone earns family-sustaining wages, and everyone has enough free time to enjoy their lives and see their kids grow up and their parents grow old,” Fain told supporters over Facebook Live last month.

As far back as the 1930s, workers put forth the idea of laboring less than 40 hours, Morning Brew reports. The first major U.S. company to normalize a 40-hour work week, with a two-day weekend, was Ford in 1926. While its rank-and-file members were all for working less than 40 hours a week, UAW leadership at the time backed off in favor of establishing a good relationship with automakers, Cutler notes.

In recent years, hundreds of companies globally have cut back workweek hours, providing researchers with data to determine results, The Center for Public Integrity reports. The investigative reporting organization called those results “remarkable,” citing a CNN article from last year that reported workers had less stress and burnout and greater job satisfaction, and a July study from nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, that found businesses reported higher revenues and solid employee productivity.

The Center for Public Integrity notes that while research on four-day workweeks shows promise, there may good reason for skepticism. “Most employers that have made the switch are small-to-midsize businesses and nonprofit organizations,” the organization notes. “And the pilot program in the United States mostly involved employees with desk jobs, with fewer blue-collar workers.”

SHRM points to a 2023 pulse survey report by International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans that found 80% of employers were not considering implementing a four-day workweek, while 14% were considering it, and only 1% had formally implemented such a plan.

“As the traditional work week saw a major upheaval with the pandemic, a few employers are implementing a four-day work week for recruiting and retention reasons,” Julie Stich, vice president of content at the foundation, said in a statement about the findings. “However, most employers, even if interested, are struggling to figure out how to make that a reality while trying to meet business operation goals.”

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