ILGWU Local 62 marches in a Labor Day parade - photo courtesy of the Kheel Center.
ILGWU Local 62 marches in a Labor Day parade – photo courtesy of the Kheel Center.

Finland may get it soon, Americans need it, too

Given the growing political, economic, and medical ferment engulfing our state, Mass residents could be forgiven for having missed a little Reuters wire piece on a new initiative in Finland. Prime Minister Sanna Marin of the Social Democratic Party—whose politics are something like Bernie Sanders (and who is a woman, for those keeping score)—announced that she will be pushing for the current eight-hour work day to be reduced to six hours. Or, put another way, Marin is proposing a 30-hour work week.

“We need to create a clear vision and concrete steps as to how Finland can proceed towards shorter working hours and Finnish employees towards better working life,” the 34-year-old leader—who is also one of the youngest serving prime ministers in the world—said.

For left-wing economists, politicians, and activists (by which I mean people whose politics are left of most current American Democrats), the idea of a shorter work week with higher minimum wages has been a goal since the start of the Industrial Revolution. When work began to be regimented by the hour. Because the less time people have to work to make a living, the more time they have for leisure and the passion projects that often make for a better planet… and for participating in the political process. Which rich and powerful people usually try to prevent.

A shorter work week also does something else important that the Reuters article doesn’t mention: It forces employers in the private and public sectors to create more jobs, lowering unemployment.

Progress toward these worthy goals was made by mass working-class movements—through labor unions and socialist political parties—in virtually every country until the early 1970s. In both the communist and noncommunist blocs.

Acolytes of the neoliberal version of capitalism—that national ruling classes have made the dominant political and economic ideology in most countries on Earth since that time—have trained their political (and sometimes actual) guns on beating back the power of working people in every aspect of life. Quite successfully, as we are seeing in this election year more clearly than ever in the US. 

 With two ruling class candidates—President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden—vying for the Oval Office… and power for their respective factions of billionaires and multinational corporations. The new twist being Trump’s ham-fisted moves toward some kind of strongman quasi-dictatorship that are causing alarm in Democratic Party circles. But not enough for Democratic leadership to back a candidate like Bernie Sanders—who would have fought to increase the power of working people in America. To the detriment of both Biden’s and Trump’s corporate backers. And who would have been the only Democratic candidate that would have peeled white working and middle-class voters away from the Republican Party, making a blue victory over Trump much more certain than it is at the moment. [Though it’s worth mentioning that Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins is even stronger on labor issues—and is still running and will be on the ballot in Massachusetts.]

All this in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic—which has caused the most unemployment suffered by working families since the Great Depression. As entire public-facing industries like travel, entertainment, and restaurants collapse due to the necessity of social distancing until better treatment and at least one good vaccine arrive. Even as global warming, once a distant threat, becomes a clear and present danger. Jeopardizing not just our economy, but our civilization. And playing a role in creating the conditions that will make pandemics ever more frequent.

With 833,352 Americans filing first-time applications for unemployment insurance the last week of August alone, the official unemployment rate hovering around 10% over the summer, and a much larger number of underemployed people unable to find sufficient paid work to make a decent living in the best of times, it seems to me that if there was ever a time to push for a shorter work week, this is it.

So who will fight for this  necessary labor reform? Which will help create more and better jobs for all. It has to start with every working person reading this. My message to all of you on this and a host of related issues remains the same week in, week out: find decent labor organizations and political formations or create your own. Go for what you really want. Force Democratic misleaders like the Bidens of the world to either do what you need them to do… or to get off the political stage. To be replaced by better leaders. And shove the incipient fascists of Trump’s Republican Party out of power once and for all.

Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Contact for more information. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2020 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.