How Working Less Can Help Prevent Climate Catastrophe and Promote Women’s Equality

Daniel Aldana Cohen March 24, 2015

"Work-life balance and gender issues must be central concerns of union movements." (Michael Herve / Flickr)

This piece first appeared at Labor Notes.

In the face of loom­ing eco­log­i­cal cat­a­stro­phe, can unions help restruc­ture work itself? And what’s gen­der inequal­i­ty got to do with it? We posed these ques­tions to Tom Malle­son, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Social Jus­tice and Peace Stud­ies at King’s Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege at West­ern Uni­ver­si­ty in Lon­don, Ontario, and author of After Occu­py: Eco­nom­ic Democ­ra­cy in the 21st Cen­tu­ry.

Labor Notes: Labor’s cli­mate agen­da has been main­ly about get­ting more green jobs. In your research, you’re more inter­est­ed in a dif­fer­ent, broad­er approach to work, focused on sus­tain­abil­i­ty, women’s unfair work­load and get­ting all work­ers a much bet­ter deal. Let’s start with the eco­log­i­cal dimension.

Tom Malle­son: Our econ­o­my and envi­ron­ment are on a col­li­sion course. Right now, the only way our econ­o­my is able to pro­vide decent jobs is through con­stant, per­pet­u­al growth. So the fun­da­men­tal chal­lenge is think­ing how we can rearrange the econ­o­my to pro­vide both eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty and eco­log­i­cal sustainability.

One ele­ment of that is a shift from dirty jobs to green jobs. That’s right as far as it goes. But I also think that, by itself, a shift to green jobs won’t be near­ly enough to pre­vent cat­a­stroph­ic cli­mate change.

The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem is that we’re sim­ply pro­duc­ing and con­sum­ing far too much for the envi­ron­ment to bear. For exam­ple, since 1990, the aver­age Amer­i­can has spent in real terms 20 per­cent more on cars, 80 per­cent more on clothes, 300 per­cent more on fur­ni­ture and house­hold goods.

Every sin­gle day busi­ness­es extract the equiv­a­lent in weight of 112 Empire State Build­ings from the earth — and that’s grow­ing every year. That’s 50 per­cent more than it was only 30 years ago. So the bot­tom line is that we need to start pro­duc­ing and con­sum­ing less.

Fair enough. But where does that leave us in terms of jobs?

The cru­cial idea is work-shar­ing. Instead of an employ­er hir­ing one work­er for 40 or 50 hours a week, the employ­er should hire more work­ers for few­er hours. We should be aim­ing for a 35- or even a 30-hour week.

This would mean a lit­tle less mon­ey and less con­sump­tion. But if the jobs offer secu­ri­ty, health, and pen­sion ben­e­fits, then the evi­dence shows that once peo­ple get used to work­ing few­er hours they come to love it and don’t want to go back to longer hours.

Work-time reduc­tion has not been so preva­lent in North Amer­i­ca, but it has been pur­sued with suc­cess in Europe. Unions in France fought for and suc­cess­ful­ly won a 35-hour work week. Unions in the Nether­lands have been at the fore­front of cre­at­ing lots of part-time jobs.

And unlike here, those part-time jobs are actu­al­ly good jobs. They have rough­ly the same hourly pay as full-time work and sim­i­lar ben­e­fits and secu­ri­ty. That’s made a big difference.

The aver­age Amer­i­can works about 1,900 hours per year, while the aver­age Dutch per­son works about 1,350 hours per year — about 30 per­cent less. My cur­rent research inves­ti­gates those best prac­tices in Europe that might serve as a mod­el for North America.

Could you say a lit­tle more about the Dutch exam­ple, and how work­ers there can choose to get their hours reduced?

There was a major reces­sion in the Nether­lands in the 1980s. And one of the main respons­es was to fight for part-time work in order to fos­ter work-shar­ing and reduce unem­ploy­ment. What the unions were very smart and suc­cess­ful at doing was ensur­ing that part-time jobs were good jobs.

The Work­ing Hours Adjust­ment Act was enact­ed in the ear­ly 2000s. It allows every work­er who works in a firm larg­er than 10 peo­ple to — at any time — request a change in their work­ing hours, with pro-rat­ed pay and access to ben­e­fits. Busi­ness­es must agree, unless they can show very sig­nif­i­cant rea­sons why they can’t.

What about the impli­ca­tions for women of this kind of arrangement?

There are real­ly two fun­da­men­tal rea­sons why work-time reduc­tion is so impor­tant. One is the envi­ron­ment; the sec­ond is gen­der. Women do an enor­mous­ly dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of house­hold and care­giv­ing work.

Women are start­ing to work out­side the home almost as much as men. But men have not been rec­i­p­ro­cat­ing in shar­ing the care­giv­ing work. This obvi­ous­ly cre­ates all kinds of neg­a­tive consequences.

And already, in gen­er­al, peo­ple feel time-poor.” There’s huge amounts of time pover­ty in our soci­ety. We lead hur­ried, har­ried lives. So, what we need to address this gen­der imbal­ance is to make it eas­i­er for men and women to share the house­work and the care­giv­ing responsibilities.

The book that Jen­nifer Nedel­sky, at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, and I are work­ing on is called Part-Time Work for All. The idea is that we’ll nev­er get gen­der equal­i­ty until we have a soci­ety of uni­ver­sal care­giv­ing, a soci­ety where all adults share care­giv­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties in a fair and equi­table manner.

So how can we accom­plish this? Clear­ly there need to be cul­tur­al changes about what’s per­ceived as men’s roles and women’s roles. But in terms of our work­places, which is my focus, the fun­da­men­tal things we need are, first, reduced hours so that men can work less and care­give more; and sec­ond, increased work­place flex­i­bil­i­ty, what we like to call time sov­er­eign­ty.” Things like flex time, flex place, so that work doesn’t con­tin­ue to be such an imped­i­ment to caregiving.

Again, these poli­cies are fur­ther advanced in Europe. In the U.S. only 27 per­cent of firms offer the bulk of their employ­ees flex time. In Swe­den, 68 per­cent of work­places offer flex time to 80 per­cent of their employees.

I would assume that for this to work, you need a stronger state pro­vi­sion of the social safe­ty net. Can firms afford to pro­vide to part-time work­ers the kinds of things they pro­vide to full-time work­ers in the U.S.?

Right. The move to part-time work requires, as you say, an expan­sion of pub­lic pro­vi­sion of basic ser­vices. That enables peo­ple to reduce their work­ing hours with­out sac­ri­fic­ing their eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty and their basic livelihood.

We need to start delink­ing our rights to our core ben­e­fits, like pen­sions and health care, from employment.

Peo­ple might say that the con­text just seems too dif­fer­ent. It’s so hard to imag­ine Euro­pean labor arrange­ments hap­pen­ing here. What are some of the polit­i­cal lessons we can learn?

It’s true that the polit­i­cal real­i­ties in the U.S. are dif­fer­ent from Europe, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Nordic coun­tries. But the under­ly­ing forces are much the same. The dif­fer­ence is that the unions are much stronger in Europe. So to me, this implies that the lessons we get from Europe are rel­e­vant to us; we just need to mobi­lize extra-hard to achieve sim­i­lar victories.

In terms of spe­cif­ic orga­niz­ing strate­gies, I think that the core les­son is that work-life bal­ance and gen­der issues must be cen­tral con­cerns of union move­ments. Work-time reduc­tion, good part-time jobs, work­place flex­i­bil­i­ty — those are the cru­cial com­po­nents for a 21st cen­tu­ry union strat­e­gy that’s both fem­i­nist and envi­ron­men­tal­ly sustainable.

Do you know when this turn away from the straight­for­ward jobs agen­da into this broad­er, more holis­tic agen­da took place, in West­ern Europe or in the Nordic countries?

We real­ly saw that shift in the 1980s, main­ly being led by Den­mark, the Nether­lands, Swe­den, Nor­way, France to some degree, because those places have par­tic­u­lar­ly strong fem­i­nist move­ments and fem­i­nist con­tin­gents with­in the big unions.

These move­ments man­aged to reartic­u­late what con­tem­po­rary unions should be, and brought back to promi­nence some of the union movement’s orig­i­nal caus­es, as well as broad­er soci­etal ques­tions about the impor­tance of free­dom from work.

So part of the mes­sage isn’t just that unions can act in dif­fer­ent ways, but that fem­i­nist orga­niz­ing can real­ly pay div­i­dends if it joins the union move­ment successfully.


Daniel Aldana Cohen is a Ph.D. can­di­date in soci­ol­o­gy at New York Uni­ver­si­ty and author of a recent essay in Jacobin on the links between cities, labor move­ments, and low-car­bon leisure. Fol­low him at @aldatweets.
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