Back in 1866, when folks gathered in Baltimore to establish the National Labor Union, one of their first resolutions demanded an 8-hour workday — something so revolutionary that it would take decades and the martyrdom of activists in Chicago and Appalachia to adopt.
Now Maryland is back at it with a proposal introduced in the House of Delegates last month to experiment with reducing that 40-hours-a-week norm to 32 hours.
Give some of the credit to the COVID pandemic, which has forced us to reset priorities as we rethink the ways we live and work. Forced to stay home when just about everything we relied upon was shut down, forced to work from home on variable schedules, forced to spend extended time with family members in quarantine bubbles, forced to reflect on the fleeting nature of life as we digested the death toll, forced to pay attention to what people like myself had considered a namby-pamby, hippy-dippy term, self-care. Well, all that time on our hands has had consequences.
I’ve long been agnostic about all this attention to self-care. My agrarian heritage is still enough a part of me that I work until I drop and I’m more inclined to pay attention to body parts when they are not functioning than practice long-term maintenance. I chuckle when friends go on and on about how they care for their feet or their skin or when at my place of employment, Morgan State University, there is midday meditation. But I can now attest that the stress and strains of pandemic life have softened me to the notion like shea butter and aromatherapy never have.
We’ve heard about people who have in essence told employers to take their job and shove it, adding “the great resignation” to our pandemic-era vocabulary. Others have questioned why flexible schedules, including telework, can’t be permanent.
“Now that workers have had a little taste of what that is like, I think there is even greater demand of this kind of work-hour reduction,” says Vaughn Stewart, the Montgomery County delegate who is the primary sponsor of a HB-181. His bill calls for a five-year pilot program “for the purpose of promoting, incentivizing, and supporting the experimentation and study of the use of a 4-day workweek by private and public employers.”
Stewart told me, “Everybody wants more time to spend with their family. I think we can simultaneously appreciate the dignity of work while also recognizing that for the vast majority of Marylanders they would rather work to live than live to work.”
That does have a nice ring to it. But are we talking about white collar workers, or are we talking about everyone? If the latter, then aren’t we really proving the eternal truth of what Billie Holiday sang? You know: “Them that’s got shall have. Them that’s not shall lose. So the Bible said and it still is news.”
“We don’t want this to be something that can benefit white collar workers alone,” Stewart insists. “We want this experiment to affect workers with all types of education and at all income levels.”
Companies that take part in the pilot program would do so voluntarily and share in a $750,000 pool of tax-credit funds. “We’re hoping that providing this tax credit opens up the possibility for more types of employers, including those that employ working class Marylanders,” Stewart said, adding that the tax credit should overcome the powerful force of inertia while also providing “the right kind of gentle nudge” to move companies off the fence. “This will make them take a look at this and be willing to take the plunge.”
What’s noticeable is that organized labor is not at the forefront of the current movement, though, when you think about it, the idea of self-care was built into the struggle for an 8-hour workday and a 40-hour week: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will,” was the slogan in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt and his Progressive Party adopted the cause.
Worker-led organizations carried the fight in the past, but now we’re hearing more from scholars who specialize in the future of work, most notably those associated with the 4-Day Week Global. In 2022, it conducted a study of 30 companies, involving 900 or so, many of them in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The results showed that workers loved the shorter work week and employers were happy, too, because productivity increased. But that study included foreigners. Since American exceptionalism is real, greater attention must be paid to the U.S.
As Stewart so aptly puts it: “It’s going to be really hard for me to persuade my colleagues that the time is now for this idea if the only data we have come from Scotland. That’s just not going to be as persuasive as if it comes from Scotland, Maryland, and Berlin, Maryland, and Cambridge, Maryland.”
If it becomes law, Stewart’s bill would set into motion five years of data collection from Maryland employers, public and private. Then the legislature would be asked to take more permanent measures.
In five years, a resurgence in union activism may also have shifted views of what’s possible. A Gallup poll released last summer indicated that approval of unions was at its highest point since 1965. I grew up being able to hum the “Look for the union label” song; I doubt most Gen Zers knew much about unions until they heard about organization efforts of workers at Amazon and Starbucks.
“It seems right now everyone wants a union,” Courtney Jenkins, president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions, told me with some sense of satisfaction. During the pandemic, he said, quality-of-life issues were pushed to the forefront. “There’s much more conversation about the expectations of work happening now. The unions’ job is to make expectations become reality for workers.”
He’s studying the 32-hour work week bill, but says he’s for anything that makes life better for workers. “This pandemic has shown us that corporations are always going to prioritize profits over people, even in the midst of a pandemic.”
With unions gaining cachet and a new governor emphasizing the dignity of workers, economic justice and lifting people up, this proposed experiment is a logical fit. Whether or not Stewart’s bill makes it through this legislative session, the seed has been planted. I, for one, hope that it catches enough rays from the Wes Moore sunshine to germinate.
Do you think it should happen? Send me your thoughts.
E.R. Shipp is a veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is also currently an associate professor at Morgan State University.