The Multinational Monitor


N E W S   M O N I T O R

Can less work mean more jobs?

by Rachel Wolfe

After years of hard labor and low wages, West German auto workers finally rebelled in May by starting the first in a wave of strikes that was to last seven long weeks. Their demand was for the immediate introduction of a 35 hour work week, and their argument was that the five hour cut would bring more jobs to the country's 2.25 million unemployed.

The West German auto industry has recently increased use of robots and computers, and although management says that the computers will bring more jobs, workers feel the machines will only increase unemployment by replacing employees.

When employers and the center-right coalition government rejected the demand of the auto workers, IG Metall, the biggest union in West Germany (with 2.6 million members in the car, engineering, and metal industries) told 13,000 workers to stop working at 14 plants in and around Stuttgart. The union declared that it wanted to limit strike damage in the earlier phases so as not to jeopardize further negotiations.

The government and management argued that the strikes would damage the country's economic recovery and increase unemployment. The unions, however, stuck with their demand, and extensive strikes in the states of Hesse and Baden-Wurttemberg ensued.

Talks aimed at settling the strike remained deadlocked for seven weeks, until a compromise was finally reached: a 38.5 hour week starting next July, plus a 3.3 percent pay raise this summer and a 2 percent raise next April.

Meager wages and a heavy workload were not the only reasons for the strikes. Company profits were increasing steadily while wages remained level and unemployment rose. Thus, the strikers complained, management wasn't equitably sharing the profits.

This case applies not only in West Germany, but in many other countries, including Australia, where metal workers have been fighting for years for a 35 hour week. While profits there are increasing, unemployment rose by nearly 300,000 from 1974 to 1980, and one million Australians are now living at poverty level.

Theoretically, over one half million new jobs would be created in Australia with the introduction of the 35 hour week.

The West German strikes and the conflicts in Australia indicate that the movement for a shorter work week may soon spread.

There are two reasons why the plan would be advantageous in the U.S. One is that many workers would be willing to accept a shorter week instead of a pay increase in order to have more leisure time; the other is that, as elsewhere, more jobs would be created by spreading the work to a larger number of people.

Unemployment has risen significantly in the U.S. in the past 25 years. The present rate of seven percent, following a near all-time peak of 10.7 percent during the 1982 recession, is still far from reasonable. More people may be willing to work less than a standard 40 hour work week, due partially to a rise in the number of families with two workers. These factors would indicate that a shorter work week might well be worth a try here as well as in other countries.

Rachel Wolfe is an Arizona-based freelance writer.

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