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The 4-day workweek was a longshot. The UAW isn’t giving up

By Chris Isidore, CNN

New York (CNN) — Of all the bargaining goals set out by the United Auto Workers union in the just completed talks, none was more ambitious, or gained less traction in negotiations, than the idea of a four-day, 32-hour work week.

Without a cut in pay, too.

That didn’t happen, at least not this round. And it might sound like an impossible dream for most American workers. But UAW President Shawn Fain says that it’s not just achievable, but a dream that his union forefathers believed in.

“I think it’s a very realistic goal,” he said in an interview with CNN Business. He points out that it was a negotiating goal of the union back in the middle of the last century, soon after it won the right to represent workers at the nation’s automakers.

“I don’t know what happened over the next 60 or 70 years, but that conversation fell by the wayside,” he said. “So I felt it was imperative that we get the dialogue going back to, you know, workers reclaiming their lives,” he said.

But the idea was dismissed by automakers. Some executives, such as Ford CEO Jim Farley, said agreeing to that would lead to massive losses for the automakers.

“If we had done that [four-day week]….we would have gone bankrupt many years ago,” said Farley to CNN on September 14, the day before the strike started. “We’d have to close plants and most people would lose their jobs.”

And once the union and automakers started making progress toward the deal that would eventually end the strike, there was little discussion of a four-day week ever again. The union did win a record contract, with an immediate wage gain of at least 11%, an additional 14 percentage points of raises throughout the life of the contract, a return of cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) and improved retirement benefits, among other gains.

Most hourly workers at GM, Ford and Stellantis will be paid at least $43 an hour by the time the recently ratified contract ends in April 2028. That comes to about $1,700 a week for a 40-hour week. And the COLA is likely to raise it further than that. And while a hypothetical pay structure for an alternate deal featuring a four-day work week may be unknowable, paying that weekly wage for a 32-hour week would increase the hourly wage by about 25%, on top of the just negotiated wage hikes.

Whether the companies would be able to afford that additional increase will depend on a number of factors, including productivity changes, demand for vehicles and the impact that would have on pricing and the cost of raw materials, which ultimately have a far greater impact on the cost of production than labor costs. Labor accounts for only about 7% to 8% of the cost of a vehicle.

But Fain said that he believes the four-day week, with no corresponding decrease in weekly play or increase in the length of the workday, is something that lays ahead for the future. He said talks about new technology, such as artificial intelligence, leading to productivity gains, would make a shorter work week viable.

And he said that the fact that the companies all say they can afford the record deals that were reached is proof that the companies could afford to institute further improvements, such as a four-day week in the future.

“You know these companies and the billionaire class’ choice is they want keep all the profits for themselves at the expense of less and less workers,” he said.

Instead of using productivity improvements to cut staff, he argues the companies should “use the technology to our advantage. It’s a choice. So I believe [a four-day week] is very possible.”

He pointed to various pilot programs that some employers around the world are trying that test the idea of a four-day week for workers.

“I mean, it’s happening already. That’s just not happening here,” he said. “Because in America, we’ve been inundated with work hard work hard work hard, work, work, work, work, work.”

A global four-day work week pilot program was attempted last year, with 33 companies and 903 workers shifted to a four-day week with no loss in pay. At the end, none of the 27 companies that responded to follow-up questions from researchers said they were leaning toward or planning on returning to their former five-day routine. On average they rated their overall experience as a 9 out of 10, based on productivity and performance.

Consumer products giant Unilever, maker of Lipton’s tea, Dove soap and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, has been offering workers in New Zealand and Australia the choice of which four days they want to work for much of the last two years.

But even a five-day, 40-hour work week is, in large part, thanks to unions.

Unions were a major force in instituting the standard practice of a five-day, 40-hour work week, said Benedict Hunnicutt, professor at the University of Iowa, who has studied the history of the work week.

“The first demand of organized labor in the United States was for short hours,” he said. “There’s no doubt that’s the foundation of the American labor movement.”

He said legislation was introduced in the 1930s that would have set a 30-hour work week as the standard, and it had widespread support.

President Franklin Roosevelt initially endorsed the 30-hour legislation, Hunnicutt said. “Newspapers were saying it was a done deal,” he said. “Everyone assumed it was going to happen, and that the push for a shorter and shorter week would continue.”

Far beyond the goal of a 30- or 32-hour week, economists at that time, like John Maynard Keynes, predicted that by the 1980s, it was inevitable that the 15-hour work week would be the standard.

But Hunnicutt said business pressure against the 30-hour bill killed it. Labor unions, after initially being furious about the bill’s failure, moved onto other issues.

“The unions trade-off was to give up short hours for higher wages,” he said.

The Covid pandemic, and the growth of working from home for many workers, has breathed new life into the push for a shorter work week, Hunnicutt said. And Fain said the automakers putting some plants on “critical status,” working members seven days a week with forced overtime for months at a time, made a shorter work week a growing issue for his members who didn’t have the opportunity to work from home. He said the issues of a shorter work week isn’t going to go away, even if nothing changed in this contract.

“It’s not good to have to work seven days a week, or in some cases work 12 hours a day in two or three jobs just to survive,” he said. “That’s not a life. And, and again, labor has to lead the way.”

– CNN’s Vanessa Yurkevich and Anna Cooban contributed to this report.

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