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Chapter 19
Should the number of hours in the Standard Workweek be increased, kept at the current amount, or decreased?

The word workweek means the total number of regular working hours or days in a week. Regular working hours means those hours that are paid at a base rate of pay. If more hours are worked, usually a higher overtime rate of pay kicks in. While the actual length of many people’s workweeks and the pay policies of employers differ widely, the current length of the workweek is customarily taken to be about 40 hours. In this book the word workweek is given the more formal title Standard Workweek. Its length is set by the demos.

Should the number of hours in the Standard Workweek be increased, kept at the current amount, or decreased? This is actually the most fundamental issue to be included within the demos. How much to tax ourselves to provide for the federal government is the second most fundamental issue. How much we tax ourselves to support government depends on how much we earn in the first place. How much we earn depends on how much we work, how productive we are, and how much we are rewarded for our work.

If one measured, say, the height of every person who would be a member of the demos and graphed the results as a frequency distribution of heights along a horizontal axis, the result would be a bell-shaped curve with relatively few very short heights on the left, the great bulk of more average heights in the middle, and relatively few very tall heights on the right. Measuring and charting other characteristics such as the weights or waist sizes of the members of the electorate would produce similar bell-shaped curves. This bell-shaped curve would hold true even if you asked the members of the demos a question like How heavy is the statue of liberty? and charted their answers. It would also hold true if you asked the question How many hours long should be the Standard Workweek in America?

Each member of the demos would have a unique life situation, needs, desires, motivations, hopes, dreams, goals, etc. For whatever their reasons some people would want to work long and hard, purchase lots of consumer goods and luxuries, and accumulate a big bank account. Other people would prefer to work less, purchase fewer goods, and lead a simple life with much leisure time to enjoy family, friends, and other personal interests. In asking all of the demos members how long the Standard Workweek should be and taking the average of their responses to be their demos consensus, the resulting consensus would be a moderate figure that avoids all of the most extreme low and high answers. Most people would feel this to be a fair process for arriving at a comfortable and reasonable length for the Standard Workweek.

Well and good. But putting the question to the entire electorate is not how the length of the Standard Workweek is set in America. The length of the Standard Workweek, now about 40 hours, is not set by asking the members of the American electorate their opinions. It is handed down to them from on high by a few political and economic elites in government and industry. This small group is not randomly selected from and is very unrepresentative of the whole American population.

The interests of this small group do not coincide with the much broader interests of the American population as a whole. Constituted of a few plutocratic elites, this group has little interest in the leisure or private lives of American workers or their families. It has a great deal more interest in how long people can be made to work, how much they can be gotten to produce, and how much profit can be squeezed out of their labor. Therefore, the length of the Standard Workweek that they set would not be near the consensus of the electorate but would be near the extreme high end of opinion.

The problems are two. Not only is the length of the Standard Workweek set by the plutocratic few not representative of what the American people would set if given the chance, but there is no moral basis for the few to be making such a decision for the many in the first place. What government elites do not have the right to do, or, at any rate, should not have the right to do, is to paternalistically dictate how long everyone else in the land should have to work. This is precisely what is done when the federal government sets, say, 40 hours as the Standard Workweek. It’s not that everybody in the land must then work 40 hours each week, but it affects what might be called “normal practice” throughout the land, the points at which overtime, perks, healthcare, etc. kick in, and the point at which the life of a worker and his or her family falls into economic distress or ruin if they fall below it.1 If government elites set the workweek at 50 hours, all of us would end up working more. If set at 30 hours, we would all tend to work less. In their setting the length of the Standard Workweek as high as they do, they are a central cause of our lives becoming the manic rat races that they are.

We are now the hardest and longest working people of any industrial country on the planet, topping even the slaving Japanese. The Japanese even have a word, karoshi, for people dying while working too hard. Karo means exhaustion and shi is death, death from overwork or exhaustion. When one is more extreme than the extreme, it is time to do some soul searching. That soul searching and the values and choices we embrace are the business of us all. The workload that we as a nation choose to bear is not an issue to be decided only by the “fast-track,” “type A,” slave-driving, avaricious plutocrats in Washington (and the private sector plutocrats who rub elbows with them) but by all of us voting on the issue.

The difficulties of American Labor’s relationship with Capital (and with the government that Capital owns) run much deeper than this and will be addressed more deeply later. But the length of the Standard Workweek should be included as an issue within the demos.

This demos question would be, Should the number of hours in the Standard Workweek be increased, kept at the current amount, or decreased? This would be a three-button issue with the usual green up arrow at the top for “Increase,” a yellow square in the middle for “Keep it at the current amount,” and a red down arrow at the bottom for “Decrease.”


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1  In a later chapter, Government, Business, and the Definition of Labor, changes to current labor law are proposed that would alter the situation a great deal, but even with those changes the concept of the Standard Workweek would still remain central to our society, and the setting of the length of the Standard Workweek would remain a very important demos issue.  1