Fair Hours Have Once Again Become a Basic Concern In Worker Organizing

Laundry Workers Union of New York, 1914. Photo by Library of Congress, Flickr

Along with wages and conditions, hours used to be a basic concern in worker organizing. During the heyday of the struggle over hours, in the century before World War II, the demand was always for fewer of them. The “Lowell Mill Girls” agitated for a 10-hour day, and the Haymarket strikers wanted to get down to eight. But since the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 enshrined the 40-hour week, hours have tended to be taken for granted. Time was regularized, and thus depoliticized. This is changing only because, in recent years, employers have entered a devastating new race to the bottom: Involuntary part-time is becoming the new norm for low-wage workers, together with schedules so unpredictable and varying that one can’t easily get another job, or go to school, or be a reliable parent.

Now, as a new national movement about work hours gets going, it has focused on more rather than fewer, and at more regular intervals. University of Chicago professor Susan J. Lambert, a collaborator of Gleason’s, is the leading authority on the numbers behind the crisis. Her research has found that 41 percent of early-career hourly workers—people in their mid-20s and early 30s—learn about their schedules a week or less in advance; for African-Americans, it’s 49 percent. Only one in five of these workers has a significant say in when their shifts will be. The hours worked by part-timers in a given week fluctuate, on average, as much as 87 percent. The ingredients of economic crisis, corporate competition, and technology have created “a perfect storm,” Lambert says.

Nathan Schneider writing in The Nation about how unpredictable schedules and “involuntary part-time” positions for low-wage workers have put fair hours at the forefront of the fight for employee rights.

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