A Strike for a Shorter Work Week in Germany Signals a Global Shift

What does the "future of work" look like?


Wednesday should have been a fantastic day for Germany, Europe’s largest economy.

Newly released government figures showed that the country’s unemployment had fallen to 5.4 percent, the lowest number since its reunification in 1990. And while this was certainly good news, it was marred by the start of 24-hour strikes by the powerful labor union IG Metall, which represents 3.9 million German workers in the country’s key metal and electrical engineering sectors.

Citing Germany’s strong economic growth, as well as the increasing social responsibilities of workers outside of their jobs, IG Metall was asking for a six percent increase in wages and the right to temporarily reduce weekly hours from 35 to 28, with the right to return to full-time work after two years.

By January 27, nearly a million workers from more than 4,500 companies had walked out in a series of organized warning strikes for a few hours at a time. Meanwhile, the union’s leaders were involved in five rounds of negotiations, all of which failed to result in an agreement.

On January 31, the same day that Germany’s low unemployment numbers were released, the 24-hour strikes began.

Around the world, alongside the advancement of technologies that increase production rates, there’s been a growing debate about what exactly the “future of work” looks like, with a new focus on quality of life outside of work.

And, in Germany as well as across Europe, that debate and focus has come to a crescendo in the fight for a shorter work week.

“The real working time of employees is much longer than the collectively agreed working time. The employers have many possibilities to prolong working hours, but employees do not have possibilities to reduce their working time in the same way,” Sophie Jänicke, of IG Metall’s Collective Bargaining Department, tells Inverse.

Employers have offered to union members a two percent wage increases as well as a one-time 200-euro ($239) payment for the first quarter of 2018, but after five rounds of talks, they have yet to budge on the request for a shorter work week.

“We have to step up the pressure on employers…so that they show some willingness to compromise,” explained IG Metall chief Joerg Hofmann in a press conference announcing the strikes last Saturday.

If a similar 10-day strike in 2002 that involved 200,000 workers is any indication, this strike could cost the metal sector up to €2.5 billion, according to industry group Nordmetall. Some employers are already worried: ThyssenKrupp Rothe Erde, which produces steel parts and will be affected by strikes in two of its locations, will lose €1 million ($1.24 million) in sales for every 24 hours lost.

January’s partial strikes have already had serious consequences: strikes at BMW’s Munich factory have led to a production shortfall of 250 cars, and Audi, with strikes at two of its factories, is 700 vehicles behind its production schedule. With the economic losses that have already occurred, and the ones that are predicted, IG Metall is cautiously hopeful that additional talks will be more more fruitful.

America, Where Productivity and Independence are Priorities

On the other side of the Atlantic, Americans are notoriously bad at being told what to do — especially when it comes either from the government or anyone detected to have even the slightest hint of pretension.

Perhaps that’s why, in the United States, groups like the Freelancers’ Union and 1 Million for Work Flexibility that advocate for more work-life balance as well, are fighting for more flexibility rather than a shorter work-week. To give maximum flexibility to both sides, they want both workers and employers to have more choice in determining what work-life balance should look like, whether it’s adjusted working schedules, remote work, or something else.

And, with the perks of Silicon Valley startups setting a high bar, companies have been offering increasingly creative combinations of work arrangements that range from the standard 40-hour weeks condensed into longer but fewer days, office-wide working retreats, unlimited vacations, remote working opportunities, and even paid sabbaticals accrued just like time off. But as great as these perks are, they are still that: benefits to working at a “cool” office.

As Dan Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Atlantic in 2015, the conversation about a shortened work week is “very much a bunch of well-to-do folks telling others how much they should work” and doesn’t take into account “the extent to which such folks want the income and are willing to put up with the hard hours.”

Advocates for changing the nature of work in the United States say that here, it hinges on flexibility, not on shortened work weeks.

Emma Plumb, the director of 1 Million for Work Flexibility, a coalition of businesses, nonprofits, and advocates, tells Inverse that downtime has personal and economic advantages.

“We definitely highlight the value of rest and downtime, as well as the potential benefits of shorter work weeks where it makes strategic business sense.” But, she adds, “companies…and employees have different needs, so it’s important that flex solutions take those nuances into account.”

In other words, flexibility for employers and employees alike is designed to maximize productivity and efficiency and, ultimately, profit. Here’s Plumb: “Our message is that for organizations and employees to be most productive and successful, it’s crucial to look beyond the traditional in-office, 9-to-5 workplace norm.”

Indeed, the experiments in shorter work weeks have often shown how this dynamic plays out. When Utah implemented its four-day work-week in 2008 for state employees, it abruptly ended the program three years later, saying that the move’s projected savings never materialized. A recent experiment in Sweden was also canceled because the costs outweighed the benefits.

“The whole tenor of the debate in the U.S. is completely different,” says economist Jennifer Hunt, who studies labor organizing and economics at Rutgers University. One of the primary reasons is that “unions have been much stronger in Germany in recent decades than in the United States,” which has resulted in German “workers hav[ing] much longer vacations and considerably shorter work weeks.”

In other words, where labor is strong, worker protection is as well.

Or, as Sophie Jänicke of IG Metall, puts it, the union is hoping that its negotiations will “reach better working conditions for all” and offer protections without “depending on the goodwill of your employers.” Unlike in the United States, IG Metall’s opening assumption is that employers cannot be trusted to put workers first.

Not at work.

Unsplash / Drew Coffman

Also not at work.

Unsplash / Robson Hatsukami Morgan

Before the Nine-to-Five

The routine of America’s 40-hour work week has become so ingrained that “nine-to-five” has become a synonym for the grind of working life, even though the standard began as a hard-won achievement meant to protect workers from the grind of factory life.

Established in 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, it decreased the time that an American worker spent on the job from 52 hours weekly in 1900 to 40 hours. Key to this reduction on time-on-the-job was the combined role of labor unions in advocating for the regulation and technological advances that increased productivity.

The technological advances are speeding up, but the unified efforts of labor have disappeared for most American workers. Perhaps this explains, at least in part, why the work week has not changed for nearly 75 years — despite economist John Maynard Keynes’ prediction in 1930 that by 2030, the Western standard of living would be four times greater and that people would work only 15 hours per week.

By 2000, people in the United States and U.K. were five times as wealthy as they were in 1930 — surpassing his prediction and then some — but in the United States, adults employed full-time work on average 47 hours a week, according to a poll by Gallup. (The overall average, when part time work is taken into account, is 34.4 hours.)

The Effect of Strikes on the Economy

With 24-hour strikes, IG Metall’s fight for the temporary reduction of the work week to 28 hours is just heating up, but has already had an effect on labor in Germany. The union DBB, which represents public service workers, has indicated that it will ask for a “significant” salary hike and decrease in working hours from 41 hours to 39 when it enters negotiations in February, while Verdi, the country’s largest service sector union, has called for a salary increase of six percent and the option to trade salary for more time off for 130,000 workers at the postal service Deutsche Post, The Local reported the largest demand this way:

The biggest hurdle is IG Metall’s insistence that employers top up the salaries of some of the workers who choose to reduce their hours, such as low-earning shift workers or those caring for children or ailing relatives.

And organized labor has a strong backer in its fight for a shorter work week. The German government has indicated that providing better protections for workers to work either full- or part-time as needed is on its agenda.

But, that was before Germany’s coalition government combusted and chancellor Angela Merkel’s attention turned to building a new government. So, “IG Metall decided not to wait for legal changes but to try to get better regulations in our collective agreement,” Jänicke explains.

Robot bartenders in Las Vegas.

Tipsy Robot

In addition to the failure of the German government to protect workers, IG Metall’s timing has been influenced by the fastest economic growth in six years and record low unemployment in Germany. But another factor, says Jänicke, is simply how technology will inevitably change the amount of humans needed to do work. The development of automation and artificial intelligence have created a new urgency.

“De-carbonizaion is a big issue for the German car industry,” Jaenicke, says, offering an example. “To produce an electro-engine you need far less people than for a classic one.”

Economists see higher wages as beneficial to the European economy, as the comparatively higher wages and shorter work week could lead to more spending by German consumers and a greater demand for imports. The European Central Bank, meanwhile, hopes that it will drive up low inflation in the Eurozone, the union of 19 states in the 28-state EU that use the Euro as their form of currency

A shorter work week also has significant social benefits, especially in decreasing gender inequality.

“In general, men are working in full-time jobs while women are working part-time and taking care of women and children,” Jänicke says. “With our proposed option for “short full-time work” for everyone, “we are trying to establish a new model of working time, which leaves space for more partnership between the genders in care, and in professional work.”

Studies have also shown that shorter work weeks are beneficial for the environment, which will see decreased carbon emissions, but studies on whether a shorter work week makes one happier have been inconclusive. There are also opinions that go the other way: A four-day work week will not make you happier.

So What Will It Take For a Shorter Work Week?

In the United States, discussions about work’s changing nature and the “future of work” tend to focus on the effects of technology, whether it’s automation, A.I, or digitization.

And tech certainly does play an important role.

However, focusing on tech exclusively runs the risk of accepting the current system, created by man, as an immutable standard, and ignoring the real change that can be made by humans coming together and organizing, as labor unions have done for over a century.

“There is surprisingly little effect on the U.S. of what happens in labor movements in Europe,” says Hunt.

But even so, the strikes in Germany are worth watching — if only for the reminder that we can do more than accept the status quo.

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