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Last month, Germany’s largest union, IG Metall, launched a campaign with deep historical roots. The union — which represents 2.3 million manufacturing workers — is using annual wage negotiations to call for a reduction in the standard workweek, from thirty-five hours to twenty-six, arguing it would allow workers to, among other things, care for children and elderly relatives. With the initiative, IG Metall has returned to one of the union movement’s most hallowed — and traditionally successful — issues: free time for workers.

Free time, as IG Metall argues, is essential for basic dignity; to care for ourselves and our communities, we need time away from generating profit for employers. Just as importantly, we need it to realize our human potential. Our ability to think independently, experience romance, nurture friendships, and pursue our own curiosities and passions requires time that is ours, time that belongs neither to the boss nor the market. At its core, the campaign for fewer working hours is about liberation , both individually and collectively.

Surprisingly, it has long ceased to be an issue that graces political platforms in the US, even on the Left. It wasn’t always so. “The length of the workdays,” labor historians have argued , “has historically been the central issue raised by the American labor movement during its most dynamic periods of organization.”

The martyred radicals at Haymarket were fighting for the eight-hour day (“eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will,” the slogan went in those years). During the Great Depression, amid significant labor strife, an abortive attempt was made at the federal level to trim the workweek to thirty hours. For decades, American labor saw in the struggle for free time the demand that could unite skilled and less-skilled, employed and unemployed .

Today, we should reclaim that heritage. Reducing working hours while raising living standards should be one of the central, guiding issues on the Left.

The reasons free time fell by the wayside are myriad and complex. Historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt notes that in the US, postwar consumer culture, the expulsion of radicals from unions, and labor’s pivot toward embracing economic growth as the engine of prosperity all militated against emphasizing the politics of time.

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Last month, Germany’s largest union, IG Metall, launched a campaign with deep historical roots. The union — which represents 2.3 million manufacturing workers — is using annual wage negotiations to call for a reduction in the standard workweek, from thirty-five hours to twenty-six, arguing it would allow workers to, among other things, care for children and elderly relatives. With the initiative, IG Metall has returned to one of the union movement’s most hallowed — and traditionally successful — issues: free time for workers.

Free time, as IG Metall argues, is essential for basic dignity; to care for ourselves and our communities, we need time away from generating profit for employers. Just as importantly, we need it to realize our human potential. Our ability to think independently, experience romance, nurture friendships, and pursue our own curiosities and passions requires time that is ours, time that belongs neither to the boss nor the market. At its core, the campaign for fewer working hours is about liberation , both individually and collectively.

Surprisingly, it has long ceased to be an issue that graces political platforms in the US, even on the Left. It wasn’t always so. “The length of the workdays,” labor historians have argued , “has historically been the central issue raised by the American labor movement during its most dynamic periods of organization.”

The martyred radicals at Haymarket were fighting for the eight-hour day (“eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will,” the slogan went in those years). During the Great Depression, amid significant labor strife, an abortive attempt was made at the federal level to trim the workweek to thirty hours. For decades, American labor saw in the struggle for free time the demand that could unite skilled and less-skilled, employed and unemployed .

Today, we should reclaim that heritage. Reducing working hours while raising living standards should be one of the central, guiding issues on the Left.

The reasons free time fell by the wayside are myriad and complex. Historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt notes that in the US, postwar consumer culture, the expulsion of radicals from unions, and labor’s pivot toward embracing economic growth as the engine of prosperity all militated against emphasizing the politics of time.


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