Editorial: Shorter Hours For What?

Some of the longest and hardest struggles of the trade unions have been to secure agreements reducing hours of work. Hours were brought down from 10 a day to 9, and then to 8—each time against the complaint of the employers and their tame economists that this would ruin industry, price British exports out of all markets and produce millions of unemployed.

The last general movement towards shorter hours was after World War II, when the 44-hour week became fairly general for industrial workers. (The first World War had been followed by the movement that brought about the 48 to 47-hour week.)

Now a number of unions, including miners, and engineering and shipbuilding workers, are trying to get a further reduction. They are asking for shorter hours without reduction of weekly pay (that being the way hours were reduced on earlier occasions in the past 40 years). With persistent pressure, they should have some success.

It is, however, impossible to pass over without comment the seeming change of attitude that has taken place in recent years towards shorter hours. In the earlier movements the demand for shorter hours meant what it appeared to mean, but in recent years the nominally shorter hours have been used very often merely as a means of getting additional overtime pay while working the same hours as before. In manufacturing industry average hours of work in 1938 were 46½ a week and in 1946 46⅕. In 1947 the standard working week was generally reduced by agreement from 48 or 47 to 44, but the hours actually worked began to rise again, and in 1955 were only very slightly under 47. In August, 1955, out of about 6,000,000 workers covered by the Ministry of Labour inquiry, over one in four was working overtime, the average overtime of these 1½ millions averaging 8½ hours in the week. In November, 1956, there were 1,600,000 workers doing an average of 8 hours overtime a week, in the manufacturing group of industries employing about 6 million.

Of course, with the rise of unemployment and short-time working the numbers doing overtime have dropped, but at August, 1958, in the same manufacturing group of workers there were still nearly 1,200,000 doing overtime.

We shall therefore again see the trade unions in the somewhat odd position of going to the employers to state a case for a 40-hour week instead of 44, knowing that large numbers of workers are doing upwards of 50 hours.

Of course, it will be said that hundreds of thousands of workers simply cannot make ends meet on their bare pay; for them overtime is a necessity. In a sense this is true, but it is really a dangerous half-truth. If that attitude had been taken up in the 19th century the battles for shorter hours would never have been fought, but workers then did not take up that attitude. They took the more correct line of fighting both to press up the wage for the week and to reduce the weekly hours of work.

But they also set their face against the working of overtime as a normal practice, which is what it now often is.

The hours of work problem raises other issues besides the number of hours spent in the factory or office. As the years go by it is increasingly bound up with the number of hours spent travelling from home to work and back again. Workers have long been forced to move further out from the centre of the big cities, which has meant giving up more time to travel the greater distance. With modern aggravation of the problem of how to keep the traffic moving, it is now also becoming a question of spending more and more time to travel the same distance.