Did anyone notice that Jeff Lawrence, ACTU Secretary, pronounced the eight-hour day practically dead last year? He claimed, “…I don’t see us returning to – the eight-hour day, overtime, all those things.”1 Despite the fact I’m not totally sure what Jeff means by “all those things”, I’m pretty sure he’s consigning the eight-hour day movement into the annals of history. I would argue though, it’s not the eight-hour working day which is past its used by date but rather Jeff’s attitude. The idea that workers must fit themselves into longer working hours to suit the economic machine is so 90s (and a little bit disgusting as well). Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t that whole little experiment end in tears recently, although last I heard everything was back to normal apparently…
Seriously though, I’m writing this because I expect more from one of the leaders of our labour movement. I see the eight-hour day movement as deeply relevant to the big challenges our society faces. I’m not arguing that we’re going to fix everything by getting a couple hundred stonemasons to gather in the Old Law Quadrangle of Melbourne University and march down to Parliament House. Although, I’m sure the Australian Building and Construction Commission would be itching to prosecute if we did. Rather it’s an inspirational example of workers directly struggling for a balanced life – eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest. Nothing could be more relevant to a deeply unbalanced time where too many of us are overworked and too many of us are underworked. Also, surely shorter working weeks greatly assist in cutting-down unnecessary environmentally destructive consumption (but this only matters if you are not a complete paranoid nutbag – i.e. you recognise human-induced global warming).
What makes Jeff’s comments all the more archaic is that only two days prior the New Economics Foundation released a report on the necessity of a 21-hour working week. Then again, maybe I’m just attempting to justify my dislike for Mondays. What do you think? Should unions campaign strongly on social and environmental issues?
1The Age, 15 February 2010.