The Case for a 32 Hour Work Week.
The rise of robotics, and the continuing automation of production is eating away at the former blue-collar jobs that once provided an upper-class lifestyle to the American middle class. However, if one looks at economic history, increased automation has always produced new and better paying jobs. But because of the automation in some industries, fewer jobs are being created that match blue-collar skill sets and a labor surplus is being created. This has caused an imbalance in the producer/consumer surplus equation.
By creating an imbalance, with the production side of the equation eating away at and into the consumer side of the equation, the increase in automation and the use of robotics has caused social and political unrest as consumer margins shrink and lifestyles are damaged. With automation, the producer class has improved its economic financial margins, and reduced the number of higher paying blue-collar jobs. A way to redress this imbalance is to reduce the 40-hour work week to a 32-hour work week, increasing demand for labor and to allow the consumer to improve its margins in the producer/consumer surplus equation.
The Enclosure Movement and Rise of the Industrial Revolution
Marxist historians wrote that the “Enclosure Movement” in northern England heralded the transformation from a “feudal” economy to a “capitalistic” economy and the rise of the bourgeoisie.
Arable land that had once been held in “common” was enclosed by the aristocracy of England and by the landed gentry. While the Enclosure Movement greatly increased the production of foodstuffs with more efficient farming methods, it also displaced thousands of English peasants who no longer had the ability to feed their families.
At times, the Enclosure Movement was enforced by law and at times by illegal organized violence. Those that were most disadvantaged by Enclosure, became surplus labor.
The Enclosure Movement happened at generally the same time as the rise of the Industrial Revolution, and forced by economic necessity, the former peasants became industrial workers and migrated to those areas where jobs were available in the new factories.
Rise of the Industrial Revolution and the Working Class
When we envisage the rise of industrial production, most people immediately think of Victorian England and factories belching smoke and workers going hither and thither. The Industrial Revolution began with weaving and the harnessing of waterpower to power the textile looms. The ability to use water to power large weaving machines is an early example of automation, which doomed at home weavers.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most weaving was done at home, both for domestic consumption and for money under an economic system called “the putting out system.”
With the advent of John Lombe’s water-powered mill, the putting out system was doomed.
Advances in technology, and an increase in demand for the goods of England after the Napoleonic Wars, and powered by the Industrial Revolution, the United Kingdom was lifted to new economic heights.
When the peasants began working as industrial laborers, the rule was to work from sun up to sundown. This was 10 to 18 hours a day (normally 18 or whatever the owner wanted), 6 days a week. This was 60 to 108 hours a week.
The “Factory Acts” that began in 1833 and ended in 1853, restricted the use of children in industrial operations, protected women from abuse from factory owners, and in 1853 mandated a 10-hour workday. With the adoption of these acts, demand for labor increased and the working class began to form unions to demand higher pay and better working conditions. There had been attempts at unions before, but they were crushed, and it was only in 1824 that labor unions became legal by an act of Parliament.
The British blue-collar working class were not able to improve their working conditions until they were able to exert political pressure on the politicians of England through the use of the newly empowered labor unions.
The legalization of the labor unions created a growing middle class and some workers were able to afford to purchase homes and real estate property.
In 1832, property owners were granted the right to vote, but many wanted this reform to go further.
The Factory Acts
Beginning with the 1802 Health and Morals Apprentice Act of 1802 and continuing to the Factories Act of 1961, working conditions and working hours were continuously upgraded to where in the mid-20th century the work week in the United Kingdom was made for 48 hours.
By using the vote to pass the Factory Laws, the workers artificially reduced the working hours, prevented children younger than 9 from working in a factory, and thereby artificially increased the demand for labor. With the increase in the demand for labor, the factory owners were forced to bid for workers to keep up with production, and so wages increased.
By sheer force of numbers, the working class of England forced the political elite to grant “male universal suffrage.” By using political power, the unions forced the politicians to place regulations on the factories of England, and a larger and more stable middle class emerged.
The Rise of Robotics and Automation
Today, the U.S. blue-collar worker is under attack from the rise of robotics and automation. This is an assault on the blue-collar factory worker which will only intensify. In many ways, the challenges of the blue-collar worker are like the challenges faced by the peasants during the Enclosure Movement. A surplus of labor has been created, and by artificially reducing the number of workers available to the factory owners, the demand of labor will increase, and wages will also rise.
As political pressure in the United Kingdom led to the creation of a 10 hour day, and eventually a 48 hour week, so too can political pressure in the United States bring about a shorter work week, and thereby increase the demand for labor, and ease the labor disfunction that currently exists in the United States.