Women who work too much fight back
Women Who Work Too Much Fight Back
Karla Mantilla of the off our backs collective interviewed Barbara Brandt, National Staff Person of the Shorter Work-Time Group.
oob: Please explain what your organization is about and what you’re advocating.
brandt: Our organization, the Shorter Work-Time Group, was founded in 1988 by a group of women in Bosten who worked with an organization called Women for Economic Justice, a non-profit activist group. Its major purpose was to promote better economic policies for women in the Boston area. In 1988, a number of the staff people, volunteers and board of directors were attending a conference and they all started talking to each other about the fact that their lives were crazy, they spent too many hours working. They had families, they had kids, they were all doing volunteer work and they didn’t have any time. And then they said, let’s talk to other people and see if they have the same problem. So they started talking to their friends and coworkers and other people and they found out that this was actually true for everyone they talked to — men and women. Of course, these people, being volunteer activists, obviously were putting a lot of time into what they were doing, but they found out that no one had any time, even if they weren’t volunteer activists, just people with families and people with jobs. Everyone was overworked, rushed and exhausted, and their lives were crazy.
So they said, there’s something going on here. And then just around that same time, the late 1980s, the media started discovering this problem of the harried family — parents who never see each other, children who never see their parents, parents who are busy searching for daycare and driving their kids to classes and couples who have to schedule appointments with each other. But the way the mainstream media were talking about this problem was this typical American individualistic approach of “Oh well, it’s too bad, but that’s life in the modern world and each family has to figure out their own solution.”
oob: Also, it’s each family’s fault because we all are doing too many things for our kids, overscheduling the kids, that’s the problem.
brandt: Yeah. So the core group of six women in Shorter Time was a multicultural and multiracial group of labor activists, occupational health activists, and anti-racism activists. Being sophisticated feminist activists, they said “This isn’t an individualistic problem, this obviously is a social problem. There are reasons why this is happening in America today.”
They started a project to find why is this phenomenon happening, why is everyone so overworked, what are the causes, and what are some possible solutions to it. They spent about a year or so working on this research paper. I wasn’t one of the founders, but that’s when I met them, so I got involved when they were starting this, and we ended up writing a 44-page paper called “Too Much Time For Our Jobs and Not Enough Time For Ourselves: The Problems and Causes of Overwork in America Today and Proposed Solutions.”
We looked at who was overworked, and we discovered that men and women of every economic status and occupational level were overworked, every race, every class. We discovered that, interestingly enough, the drive for a shorter worktime had historically been a goal of the labor movement for over 100 years, but once the Fair Labor Standards Act (otherwise known as FLSA) was passed in 1938 — that established the 40-hour work week, time and a half, overtime, etc. — the issue of shorter work hours basically took a back burner for the labor movement.
We also recalled that early in the 1960s and 70s, people were saying that with all this new technology, we will be able to work shorter hours and we’ll basically have a problem of leisure in America. We also noticed what’s been happening since the late 1960s is that the average number of paid and unpaid work hours for Americans has risen rather than declined, after it had been declining for about 150 years. At this point, American workers have the highest average working hours of any industrialized nation. [the Japanese had the highest average at the time of the study, but have since been trying to lower work hours.] So we discovered that there is really something very weird going on here — Americans clearly have been increasing their work hours. What happened to all these wonderful benefits of technology? We also said that this problem is especially acute for women, because since the 1970s, with so many women going into the paid work force — partly because of women’s liberation, and the push for women to have paid work — women who do paid work generally have what’s called a “double shift” — they go out to the paid work and then they generally come home and have the major responsibilities for their home and families.
But it’s not just a women’s issue at all, because men work longer hours too. It’s partly a gender identity issue because American men feel they’re a good person if they work hard, so we said that there are all these issues that enter into it and the problem of overwork in America is economic, it’s political, it’s social, it’s cultural, and it’s psychological, because it relates to our workaholic culture. But it also relates to certain trends which are happening in the U.S. — for example the decline of unions and the rise of power of the elite. One of the issues is that with the pressure of global competition, employers have found that it seems to be more profitable for them to keep existing workers and overwork them instead of hiring additional workers.
We issued a 10-point solution which included things like calling for a 30-hour workweek with 40 hours’ pay, and benefits for part-time and temporary workers. A lot of people would like to work shorter hours like part-time or temporary work, but at this point it’s a two-tiered system where people get stuck in what’s called the “contingent workforce.” They have lower-paid positions and they don’t get benefits. We also called for longer vacations. As you probably know, in Europe people get 4-6 week paid vacations by law. This has nothing to do with where they work, but it’s government law — because the unions are stronger and there’s more of a governmental commitment to social benefits.
We called for better family leave — at that time there wasn’t any family leave in America. There has since been a family leave bill, but that only covers about 50% of paid workers…
oob: Also it’s unpaid, right?
brandt: Yeah, 12 weeks — so again, there’s a real problem in the U.S. with public policies around the issue of the amount of time people have to spend at work, and no recognition that this is even a problem. So what we said was that our goal in the Shorter Work-Time group was to bring this issue into public discussion and put it on the public policy agenda. People are talking about how many jobs do we have, and do we have good jobs and how much do people get paid in those jobs, but they’re not really talking about how much time people are spending at their jobs.
oob: Is the idea of a 30-hour workweek at 40 hours’ pay something that’s actually economically feasible?
brandt: Well, how do you define economics? If you’re talking about companies which are making enormous profits every year, laying off hundreds of thousands of workers, by whose criteria is something economically feasible? It’s a political issue.
oob: If women are interested in this issue, what would you recommend that they do at this point? What kind of work is needed to organize around this issue?
brandt: First of all, it’s really important for people to start talking about it and familiarize yourself with the issues. We would recommend, for example, getting some of our publications, and also some of the major ones, such as Julia Schor’s book The Overworked American. She basically put this issue on the map. She’s not a part of our group, but we know her and she knows us. Another very important book about this issue is Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work which is sort of the other side of it. He says that the increase in technology will eliminate a lot of jobs, and therefore it’s time we started bringing this discussion into public policy and talking about how we can have people do the work that’s really needed, without technology, and allow to economic resources to be distributed to those people.
At this point, we’re still operating under the assumption that the longer hours you work, the more money you make. That’s ridiculous because another problem that’s happening is the growth of part-time, temporary and contingent workers. It’s been estimated that they are 30% of all workers, and it’s disproportionately women and people of color who are in the contingent workforce. So what’s really happening is that you’re getting a split between those who are overworked, which is maybe 70% of the workforce, and the people who are underemployed, who are maybe 30%. Black males actually have the highest levels of underemployment in the population.
oob: How do we address the fact that currently some people who work 40 hours a week don’t make a living wage?
brandt: There’s no “one size fits all.” People need to be aware that in the U.S., overwork is a way of life because it relates to both laissez-faire capitalism and economic policies, which means whatever the employer wants, goes. What the workers need is irrelevant and whatever the employers want sets the policy, which results in the corporation taking more and more power and influencing the government. So if they want to overwork people, they can do that. Different people are overworked. Some people are overworked but they’re making a decent living — some studies show that at least 50% actually say that they need time so much that they’d be willing to earn less money. That’s a group that’s obviously more professional, white-collar workers. They need to be supported in saying “I’m a good person, I don’t need to be judged by how many hours I work. I have a right to spend less time at work.” People like that need to start talking to their fellow employees and start negotiating in their own workplace.
We found that you need to have support within your workplace to push for a better, shorter work hours policy. If you have a union, it’s really important to encourage your union to promote a shorter work hours policy. Of course many of those people in the higher-level white collar jobs aren’t unionized or covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. That basically covers wage and hourly workers and excludes professionals, administrative and executive workers, as well as a lot of very low-level workers like agricultural workers.
So in fact, an enormous percentage of the workforce is not even covered by the 40-hour work week, and that means that their employers can force them to work more than 40 hours a week and they don’t even have to be paid for those extra hours. That covers a lot of your lawyers, computer and administrative people.
I should mention that a lot of the people who work at places like McDonald’s and are called managers are low-paid but because they’re called managers, they can be forced to work more than 40 hours a week with no overtime pay. So one of the problems in terms of policy is we need to expand the coverage of the 40-hour work week.
oob: I think it probably also creates a lot of jealousy, because people who work a lot of hours then feel that people who just work 40 hours have it lucky, and people who just work 40 who don’t get paid as much as the people who work more hours feel that they have it lucky, so neither one are on each other’s side.
brandt: Exactly. You want to encourage people to realize that overwork in effect is standing on unemployed people. What we really need to do is to create higher pay and shorter work hours for everyone, so for some people in the very low end of the scale, you need to raise their wages so they can afford to work. For some people you need to allow them to simply spend fewer hours at work. If they’re currently not covered by FSLA and if they don’t have a union, which is millions of white-collar professionals, they need to talk within their own workplace with fellow employees to gain support to negotiate in their workplaces with their employers.
At the policy level, we need to expand the coverage of FSLA, we need to push for benefits for part-time workers and to push for the concept of a full-time standard which is less than 40 hours a week, so that we don’t expect that people work 40 hours a week. Why should they? Where did that figure come from? Why shouldn’t people be expected to work for pay 30 hours a week?
We’re saying that this emphasis on overwork is very harmful to families and households and communities. Neighborhoods and communities are crumbling because the majority of people are overworked. So they don’t have time to be at home, they don’t have time to give to community volunteer work. People don’t even have time to vote. Look at the implications — people don’t have time to watch over kids in their own families or in their neighborhood, so you have gangs and all kinds of alienated young people, because adults are expected to spend so many hours at their paid work, which is looked at as the only worthwhile thing people can do. There’s a growing movement among conservatives to reject spending so much time at paid work, but often the way they look at it is men should go out and do the paid work and women should spend more time at home. We’re saying no, it’s got to be balanced, women have the right to work in the paid workforce, and men have the right to spend time at home with their families. Both men and women should have the right to shorter hours of paid work and ample time to spend in their homes and with their families and communities.
oob: Do you find that there is a growing awareness about this?
brandt: There is. For example, the October 27, 1997 “U.S. News and World Report” had a feature story called “Can You Work Less and Still Get Ahead?” They have the most recent information about how many hours people are working, the fact that people really do want to work fewer hours, various approaches that different companies are doing to make this happen.
oob: How do you get funding for your work?
brandt: It’s really grassroots. People give us donations for the newsletter and buy the publications, and every once in a while someone gives us a larger grant. What the group basically does it public education. We’re all volunteers. We’re a communications network for people and organizations interested in the issue, we have a mailing list of people all over the U.S. and across the world, and we also do speaking engagements.
Illustration (Collage of working woman and master clock)
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Dec 1997
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