• Modern Times: The New Attack on Working Time in Europe

  • By Karola Boger , Thomas Händel , Frank Puskarev | 09 Nov 10 | Posted under: European Union , Theory
  • “Time is the delimiter of human development. A person who has no free time at his disposal, whose whole lifetime – aside from the mere physical interruptions of sleep, meals and so on – is taken up by his work for the capitalists, is less than a beast of burden. He is a mere machine for the production of alien wealth, bodily broken and intellectually brutalised. And yet, the whole history of modern industry shows that capital, when it is not reined in, will ruthlessly work to bring the whole working class to this extreme degree of humiliation“.

    (Karl Marx)


    From the beginning of industrial history we have been in a continual struggle to shorten the work day – and we have had considerable success. Only the extension of the individual work week and the so-called machine running time – so goes capital’s “modern” argument – are able to keep the economy competitive, which then – almost automatically – leads to more and more secure jobs. A further employer’s offensive at the European level is imminent.

    Since the 1980s the fronts and conditions for action in the shaping of working time have fundamentally shifted. The realisation of the 35-hour work week in the 1980s and 1990s was the answer to the growing intensity of work through the weakening of the dependently employed by mass unemployment. Aside from the negotiated work-time shortening in Germany’s metal and electrical industry, the legalised reduction of working time in France to a 35-hour work week, with the creation of about 500,000 jobs in France alone, was a great success. Despite this historic success, its extension to the European level was only rudimentary. In the central and eastern European countries, as in Portugal, the 40-hour-week standard was gradually legally anchored, in the wake of the European Working Time Directive (EWTD) that had a maximal working time of 48 hours per week.

    Capital never accepted its defeat in the working-time question of the 1980s and has been pushing ever since to reverse it. The struggle around working time is the most bitterly fought social confrontation, as here redistributive issues come together with questions of power over access to labour power. The empire strikes back: the pressure on employers led to increasing working time for full-time employees – especially in Germany and France.

    Since the 1980s, the flexibilisation of working time forced through by employers and the increasing transformation of plant-level working-time regulation became a lever used against a socially regulated work-time regime.

    Modern societal tendencies to individualisation, self-determination and individual responsibility were misused by employers so as to introduce “honour-system working time” (working time in this case is no longer measured), which tends to the removal of limits on working time and to self-exploitation. In so doing, a differentiation of working time according to employment groups is effected. In Germany, France and Great Britain, high-skilled workers, in particular, work on average two hours more than employees with medium or low qualification.

    The loss of the trade unions’ power to shape the question of working time is also the expression of a general defensive in which unions find themselves in the course of neoliberal hegemony. For this, the generation of a new market regime – financial-market-driven capitalism – has been decisive.

    The long slowing-down of economic growth in the developed capitalist countries and the “rise” of hitherto developing regions such as, for example, Southeast Asia, led to a spiral of weak growth, unemployment and to a massive redistribution of income and assets from bottom to top. The growing capital assets lusted after ever more profitable investment forms and ever higher rates of return. All economic and social processes were forced to subordinate themselves to the maxim of ever quicker profit maximalisation. Precarity and poor relief are replacing social security. The rich become richer, and the number of poor people – with or without jobs – is increasing. Individual competition is replacing social solidarity.

    The neoliberal paradigm shift has also reached the workplaces: “The most important task of the leading forces is to create an environment in which the co-workers passionately resolve to be successful in the market. Fear plays a big role in developing this passion and maintaining it. The fear of bankruptcy, fear of making a mistake and the fear of losing can be powerful motivating forces”, wrote Intel chief Andrew S. Grove in his 1966 management bestseller. The significantly titled book – “Only Paranoids Survive” – received a lot of attention.

    The absolute orientation toward the customers and the pressure of the financial markets “to penetrate down to each individual co-worker, that is the achievement which will decide the survival of the workplaces” – thus the 2000 rallying cry of the metal industry employers association Martin Kannegiesser. Enormous ideological pressure was applied in the workplaces (“It isn’t we who pay your salaries; it’s the customers”), which prepared the ground for the ruthless use of so-called “high-achieving performers”, while at the same time the “less useful” were separated out, and are still being separated out.

    Under the primacy of national-position competitiveness, the work-time question degenerated also in social consciousness into a workplace “regulating screw”. The work-time prolongations tolerated by the – often blackmailed – work teams became a “pressure valve” to save salaries and to make work cheaper and thereby make national labour-competitive positions “competitive”, at least in the short term. The blackmail potential deriving from mass unemployment and the threat of poverty (Hartz IV in Germany) did the rest.

    The effect is massively felt by the employees. “They say: ‘You have to construct your own job, so that you can become quick enough, and if you don’t do it, then we can’t keep your department and your job anymore!’ The competition, which we formerly had with other firms, has now been completely shifted to our departments”, is the way a factory council member from Nuremberg describes the situation.

    The “market” appears as an anonymous, objective and existence-destroying power, while management presents itself as an “ally” in the struggle for jobs, and it consequently keeps squeezing more concessions from the employees. Where securing jobs becomes the theme that displaces all others, it is very difficult for the union to resist it.

    European regulation of working time

    The pressure on working time continues. The current focus is the EWTD of 1993 and 2003. As an expression of the preceding conflicts around working time, it is indeed a compromise on the basis of the lowest common denominator; nevertheless a study commissioned by the European Parliament group of Die LINKE clearly shows its determining effect regarding the standardisation of the 40-hour work week and the limiting of working time to 48 hours in Europe. In the last legislative period, the European Parliament did indeed reject a worsening of the existing Working Time Directive (Directive 2003/88/EC). However, it would be naïve to think that the discussion will end there.

    At the European level the starting shot for the further deregulation of working-time law has been initiated. On March 24, 2010 the Commission decided: “The Commission recommends a comprehensive reworking of the Working Time Directive and enjoins the social partners “thoroughly (…) to reconsider the question of which kind of labour relations the EU needs in order to be able to cope with the challenges of the 21st century”.

    Where this journey is to end is spelled out by the European Employers Association BusinessEurope in its last Briefing: “The reworking of the Working Time Directive should not lead to stricter rules at the EU level and impede the flexibility of enterprises and employers. … Flexibility is decisive for enterprises. They have to be able to organise working time according to their activity, to the production cycle and the demands of customers... The individual employees should be given the possibility of working more than 48 hours a week, if they want to. They should not be restricted in so doing by excessive EU legislation”.

    The goal is the further watering down of the existing regulations, more exceptions, averaging of working time and annual working time models with ever longer compensatory periods. Already existing so-called opt-out regulations within a whole law or in single rules, which are generally not applied or from which one is allowed to deviate – are to remain untouched. In the Working Time Directive it is possible to exceed the individual maximum working time of 48 hours – completely “voluntarily” justified by the particular labour relation. What is obviously involved here is the removal of restrictions on the working time of those who are “useful”; for the “less useful” precariety is okay.

    The European Court of Justice’s judgements on standby times are mostly aimed at BusinessEurope, stipulating in their SIMAP judgement that standby time has to be calculated as working time. Any erosion here would have massive effects on the majority of those employed in public services. Important here is also the determination of the concept of “equitable compensational rest periods”.

    A further point of attack is the calculation of working times. This is in the future not to be oriented to the single employee but to the labour contract. If an employee had several employment relations, the single working times could be separately counted, which could lead to a massive exceeding of the maximal work-week times.

    That the EU Commission is completely inclined to follow this kind of erosion of the existing regulations, was clear in Fall of 2009: with an attempt to expand the travel time of employees in the trucking industry, the driving time of independent drivers are to be excepted from the regulations in effect and thus be increased from 60 to 80 hours. With the threadbare reasoning that one cannot “prescribe working times for independent workers” (COM) this was a test balloon for the new (rightwing) majorities in the European Parliament. Only through the intensive alliance and lobbying work of the red/red/green group of the European Parliament, reaching into the ranks of the left-liberals and the social conservatives, could this attempt at expanding driving times be fended off by a clear majority in the early summer of 2010. The question of labour and health protection, street transport security and distortion of competition and equitable legislation supplied the needed links in a way that could cross boundaries between political groupings in the European Parliament. Whether this can succeed in the case of the whole Working Time Directive is a completely open question. It is a preliminary victory therefore – the confrontation will continue.

    The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is still adhering to the general binding force of a 48-hour work week maximum with short compensational periods, to the abolition of the opt-out rule and to the recognition of standby service, in its entirety, at the workplace as working time. “The ETUC and its member organisations will support no proposal that contributes to the weakening of the current directive”. Instead of this it wants to concentrate on the improved realisation and carrying out of the current directive and jurisprudence.

    Employment Commissar Lazslo Andor has, however, recently announced that he would introduce the second phase of the consultation procedure ? … with good possibilities for an understanding…” According to him, the Commission wants to present a draft for a new working time directive in the first half of 2011.

    In the context of these clear utterances, it should not be difficult for the social left forces to put the issue of working time on the agenda and craft defensive and proactive alliances. This can only succeed if one is ready to take off the blinders which hinder cooperation. This is – as the campaigns around shortening of working time in the 1980s show – indispensable in view of the tremendous importance the European employers have attributed to the issue. In this conflict it is possible to succeed in winning back lost terrain and go on the offensive. For this reason, it is worth glancing at the various facets of this issue:

    Working time and health

    In the whole history of industry, protecting the health of the dependently employed has been the predominant question in working time regulation. “But in its enormously blind drive, in its werewolf hunger for surplus labour, capital goes beyond not only the moral upper limits of the working day but also its pure physical limits…” Marx writes in 1867.

    This has hardly changed in the 21st century, aside from retreat from the purely physical diseases: throughout Europe psychological and psycho-social diseases have grown to an extreme degree, according to a 2009 investigation of the German Federal Institute for Labour Protection and Labour Medicine (BAuA). The questions addressed to 50,000 people in Europe provide the most comprehensive proof up to now of the connection between working time and health. The longer people work, the greater is the danger to their health. Insecure working conditions, shift work, variable working times, evening or weekend work or bad planability increase the impairment of health.

    For this reason, the existing level of protection has to be defended, standby times must from now on be counted 100 per cent as working time, and attempts to go beyond the current work-week maximum time of 48 hours must be prohibited.

    In work team assemblies of recent years – especially since the constant attempts to raise the pensionable age – the employees are reacting very sensitively to their own question: “Can I sustain the increasing working times and pressure until I retire?” By using the EU as bypass, capital and neoliberal governments are now trying, under cover of a dubious scholarly cover (the COM’s Green Book 7/2010) to justify a pensionable age of 70.

    Working time and employment

    Working time policy is always employment policy. It makes no social sense to make millions of people work more than a 40-hour work week, while millions of others are condemned to a 0-hour week.

    While the EU Commission has for years been praising “flexicurity” (“Individuals increasingly need employment security instead of job security, because fewer people work for their whole life at the same job” – EU Commission 2007), the balance-sheet is devastating: about 50 million people in the EU have to work for the lowest possible wages or are poor despite work – and this tendency is increasing. A further 23 million are unemployed – an employment standstill with more social insecurity – a dreary “model of success”. The new EU Commission is formulating its flexicurity credo in 2010 even more starkly: “The main thing is work – at whatever conditions.“ Alongside some positive aspects of the deliberations that could be carried out in the European Parliament, the new European employment guidelines 2020 are breathing the same spirit.

    It is high time for a new employment policy with the hard core of a strict limitation at first to 40 hours and the drastic shortening of working time with full wage compensation. This and the drastic slashing of overtime are means of fighting mass unemployment and organising the distribution of work to the greatest possible number of people.

    Integrated into the concept “good work”, this is humanly decent work, employees’ rights to shape and determine conditions, just compensation, sustainable work and health protection as well as more social security, this approach is a new European general orientation to non-temporary employment. Social minimum standards, such as a Europe-wide minimum wage regulation and binding guidelines for outsourced work, service provision and employee dispatching, whereby the basic principle of “equal working conditions and rights for the same wage in the same place” cannot be circumvented, necessarily belong in this new orientation. The goal must be to give the greatest possible number of people the opportunity for a poverty-free, independent life and work.

    Time to live

    Even 25 years after the struggle for the 35-hour work week, working time is living time. The struggles and strikes for the 35-hour week have created important milestones in the development of employment and working conditions. IG Metall’s campaign model “Give us a good life” (Her mit dem guten Leben!) can also serve for a new debate on the further development of working time policy. The same is true for gender relations.

    While the working time of (predominantly) full-time male employees is increasing, the average work week of the (overwhelmingly female) part-time employees in Germany continues to decrease. There is no sign of the ability to secure an independent existence or old-age security. If children are present, men work more and women less. Instead of an emancipatory approach, of a real “work-life balance”, the road is leading back to the conservative family model, in which the woman earns extra money. Other roads are indicated by the northern European countries and by France. There the difference between the working time of women and men is significantly less than in Germany; and the work times of part-time work are on the average clearly higher. “Five hours more for love and traffic” was a favourite slogan of the battle for the 35-hour work week in Germany!

    Where do we want to go?

    The continued high and prolonged unemployment forces people to accept deterioration in their working time and conditions – for fear of being left on the street at the next wave of lay-offs. What is now in place is degraded social security with a guarantee of becoming poor.

    Slowly, however, we see debates on working time questions germinating again in trade unions and social movements. Workplace resistance against working-time prolongation and so-called “honour-system working time” are still growing only sporadically. For the first time in many years in a wage struggle the Austrian metal workers are now fighting for shorter working time at union negotiated wages. The new debate formulates in a self-conscious way the basic principle of reduction of extraneously, non self-determined work as a form of participation in the growing well being of society, the principle which has guided us since the struggle for the eight-hour day. A comprehensive shortening of working time is absolutely affordable in view of the real increases of productivity. In view of the massive, decades-long redistribution from bottom to top, this would merely be a re-redistribution of society’s wealth.

    The situation in Germany has recently shown that a reduction of working time through the short-time-worker regulation, accompanied by a batch of workplace and wage measures, would secure jobs – indeed with (partial-) wage compensation. And one could do still more.

    While in pre-industrial times, belonging to a social estate determined the social position of a person, in the industrial age it was income that was determining. In post-modernity we run the danger of the valorisability of a person becoming a societal principle. “At the end of modernity a new barbarism is awaiting us”, as Jeremy Rifkin wrote a few years ago.

    If we want to impede this, it is high time to take again into our own hands the matter of how we want to work and live in the future.

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