Economic Policy on the Shorter Work Week in Canada

by R.J. Reierson


  1. The 32-hour, four-day workweek should be established in definite stages primarily through provincial and federal legislation, and enforcement that involves workers in all sectors.

  1. Immediately, the provincial workweek norms in Canada should be reduced to 40 hours. This should be coupled with a ban on all regular overtime over the 40 hours. The federal government now has a norm of 40 hours; it too should ban all regular overtime over 40 hours in federally regulated industries. Overtime for emergency reasons should be clearly defined, voluntary, and continue to be paid at time and a half (unless union contracts specify a higher amount)

  1. In two stages, on a clear timetable, the provincial and federal governments should reduce the norm for the workweek to 36 hours and to 32 hours, to achieve the four-day week with a maximum of 8 hours per day. The overtime limits should also be reduced but in negotiation with unions in all affected sectors to assure that effective transitional measures are taken.

  1. There should be increases in the provincial and federal minimum wages and decreases in income taxes on lower incomes to help protect the take-home pay of workers with below-average wages.

  1. The provincial and federal governments should require for all salaried jobs, where not already clearly stated, that employers must state the number of hours per week for which a salary is being paid and that the number of hours of work for salaried workers must conform to labour standards. All employers should be required to state clearly on pay slips the number of hours for which wages or salaries are paid.

  1. There is a long-term trend to increasing unemployment and underemployment in Canada as under capitalism as a whole. Growing unemployment hits hardest at the lowest paid, the least skilled or trained, and those with least seniority, but workers in virtually all occupational levels are being affected. For those who become unemployed, the duration of unemployment has become longer. General insecurity and desperation among workers is growing and competition over jobs, especially better paid or ‘good’ job, is intensifying. At the same time the federal government continues to cut eligibility and benefits for unemployment insurance.

  1. More unemployed people, younger and older, and single parent mothers are falling into absolute poverty and coming to depend on social assistance to survive. Families are also faced with more pressures to look after unemployed children and spouses. Around one in five Canadians depends on unemployment insurance or social ‘assistance.’

  1. Mass unemployment (the industrial reserve army of labour), in Canada and internationally, is the major factor weighing down heavily on wages and permitting capitalists to screw up the rate of exploitation of labour. The real wages for most workers in Canada have been stagnating or falling since the mid-1970s. The pressures of unemployment and international competition on real wages have been supplemented by federal and provincial government wage rollback programs. Attacks on real wages have been paralleled with attacks on social programs; cuts in eligibility and benefits are reducing the social wage of working people.

  1. The deteriorating employment and income situation of most workers has been accompanied by the intensification of work in both the private and public sectors. This is promoted in anti-labour management strategies such as ‘lean production,’ ‘total quality management,’ etc., whose goal is to increase labour productivity both quantitatively and qualitatively for higher profits with a reduced labour force.

  1. There is evidence that working time is being extended. At present, despite mass unemployment, overtime is increasing. So also is moonlighting or multiple job holding. Capitalism has swept away major limits to the natural and social rhythms of work. The shift system, which Marx railed against in the 19th century, is deeply entrenched, and what remains of common pause days like Sundays and official holidays are being rapidly eroded. Capitalists have an inherent desire to keep their means of production always engaged. “To appropriate labour during all the 24 hours of the day is, therefore, the inherent tendency of capitalist production” (Capital, I, 245).

  1. The revolution in family structure, where now a majority of married women are in the labour force, has meant that the average paid working time of households has shot up to 70 or more hours per week. Yet most two-earner households are not significantly better off than were one-earner families two or three decades ago; and many are worse off.

  1. Not only is the economic security and well-being of the working class suffering, but so also are health standards. Although there has been an overall decline in fatal accidents, job injuries have not declined substantially and, in some industries such as construction, they are growing. There is mounting evidence about and awareness of environmentally related sickness and disease from work and pollution-related causes. There is also medical and social evidence of growing work stress, work exhaustion, depression, and alienation in the labour force.

  1. Capitalist accumulation and impoverishment – These trends reflect the process of impoverishment under capitalism. They are the direct consequences of the general process of capital accumulation (or growth) and not an atypical situation or policy mistake. Neo-conservative policy has made things worse for the working class, but impoverishment is systemic to capitalism and will not be eradicated except through establishing working class power and socialism.

  1. Since the mid-1970s there has been a process of absolute impoverishment going on in Canada. This has been accompanied by relative impoverishment, in which capitalist incomes and wealth generally increased relative to those of the working class.

  1. The exploitation of labour has been increasing. Labour productivity has continued to rise during this period, though for several reasons it has grown somewhat more slowly than in other advanced capitalist countries (such as Japan and Germany). Thus, with productivity rising but most wages stagnant or falling, the gains from increased productivity have been flowing to capitalist owners, especially the transnationals

  1. An injury to one is an injury to all – The biggest gap in income and wealth in capitalist society is between capitalists and workers. But within the working class there are major gaps in incomes and conditions. Overall, the working class has been going backwards economically. Some groups have been especially hard hit, but a smaller number have been holding their own or actually doing a bit better, especially among those in established positions or with the protection of seniority in more stable sectors.

  1. Among the hardest hit by capitalist unemployment and impoverishment are young workers and those with little or no seniority; older workers forced into permanent lay-offs; women in segregated low-paid job ghettos; workers facing racial discrimination or discrimination for disabilities.

  1. The Communist Party works to strengthen economically and politically the position of the working class as a whole against the capitalist class, particularly Canadian and foreign transnational corporations, who constitute the main enemy of the working class.

  1. To strengthen the position of the working class and to foster unity and solidarity among workers, policies must act as a force for unifying the vast majority of workers and struggles for reforms must be seen firmly within the context of the struggle for socialism. In conditions of growing impoverishment, fighting for jobs, particularly good jobs, and for improving the conditions of the poorest paid and most vulnerable is the top priority. Substantial measures to reduce unemployment and strengthen the position of the weakest sections of the working class will reduce exploitative pressures on all workers and strengthen the power of the entire working class.

  1. Tackling the crisis of overwork and the maldistribution of work is a crucial means to reduce unemployment, to advance the position of the most marginalized workers, and to raise consciousness among workers of their common class economic and social interests. It is not the only means, but for a variety of economic, family, and environmental reasons it is a question that is today on the historical agenda. (Some statistical points on the extent of overwork are contained in People’s Voice articles on the issue.

  1. Labour action and the State – It will not be possible to reduce the workweek for the working class as a whole without state action under the active political pressure of the working class movement. It is possible and desirable that individual unions and groups of unions struggle to reduce the workweek in their particular sector. For instance, in industries with a high level of monopoly or some form of protection from capital flight (such as the Auto Pact) it may be possible to achieve a significantly shorter workweek through collective bargaining without direct state intervention. However, under capitalist competition which is now not only domestic but increasingly international, it is always possible and likely that unorganized firms will undercut the conditions of unionized firms. Hence, it is necessary to compel the state to put a lower limit or floor on cutthroat pressures to lower standards. Historically, all major changes affecting the working day and working week have been associated with the political action of labour and winning state changes to legislation.

  1. The increasingly free movement of capital and the growing power of the transnational corporations constitute very real threats to any group of workers attempting to strengthen their position without the active support of the state. Inevitably, any programs to reduce the workweek will give rise to questions of the ‘free movement’ of capital and to measures to control and end that free movement, which is today a crucial capitalist means of weakening the position of the working class.

  1. Why 32 hours? The Communist Party demands the reduction of the workweek to 32 hours. Why focus on reductions of the workweek rather than, say, the more general ‘reduced working time’? First, because the working week still constitutes the central norm in labour standards legislation affecting wage and salary earners and has the potentially greatest effect on total work time over a lifetime. Second, because in comparison with increases in vacation periods, which is another major alternative, changes in the working week are more likely to generate regular employment for the unemployed and underemployed. (In Canada, most vacations tend to be taken in the summer, so increased vacations would tend to create seasonal not full-year work.) Third, because changes in normal working time during the year is more likely to have a positive continuing effect on reducing the stress of and equalizing the burden of household work for two-earner and single-parent families. Fourth, because changes in the work week will have more immediate effects on work-related accidents and stress; more regular recovery from the debilitating effects of work will also give greater time and stimulus to fight to change the nature of the work itself. Fifth, because it is a more concrete and clearer focus. None of this denies that we should fight to increase vacations with pay, especially to a minimum of four weeks per year.

  1. The demand for a 32-hour week is also a demand for a four-day week and a major from the present situation where the five-day week or worse is standard. For instance, in Ontario the official workweek (where overtime clicks in) is 44 hours and overtime is usually allowed by the government through a mal-administered permits system. Research indicates that small incremental changes tend to be absorbed by speeding up the existing work force, so small changes tend not to generate many new jobs. By contrast, larger changes have a more significant impact for job creation.

  1. The question of whether labour should make any concessions in pay for a reduced workweek has had much debate. The generally accepted principle is and should remain a reduced workweek without any loss in pay. However, there must be some realism and recognition of the varying conditions of different groups of workers in applying this principle.

  1. First, there should be no reason to back off a complete ban on overtime over the 40-hour week even if it does reduce the incomes of some workers. Capitalists, unfortunately often with the collaboration of right-wing union leaderships, have hooked some groups of workers into accepting regular overtime to the point that the workers view it as part of the regular wage and bargaining on base rates and spreading overtime work to unemployed or underemployed workers has been neglected.

  1. At the highest levels of the working class the private earnings of some groups of workers have risen to the point where they are ‘materially sufficient’ by any reasonable domestic and, certainly, international standard. There comes a point when we have to say honestly that new RVs, three cars per family, a private swimming pool for every house, suburban bungalows of 3000 square feet, etc., are not needed while others go without and, in any case, are not environmentally sustainable. It is not necessary to define a precise line for material sufficiency. The point is there must be a leadership in fighting for taking productivity gains in reduced hours without pay rollbacks. In some situations it might be possible to accept small decreases in pay, such as five percent, for a major decrease in the workweek such as moving from five to four days. For most workers this is actually an increase in the rate of pay, even if a decline in total earnings, so that there is not necessarily a concession in terms of the rate of exploitation of the overall alignment of power between workers and capitalists.

  1. By contrast, there can be very little negotiation in terms of the total incomes of lower and middle-income workers. In fact, increases in the minimum wage must guarantee that any reduced workweek does not make the lowest paid even worse off. Since part-time work is a main cause of low incomes, more full-time jobs and a higher minimum wage will actually improve the real incomes of a large number of lower paid workers. Tax changes are also crucial in this context. The income tax needs to be made more progressive, with significantly lower rates for lower and middle income workers and much higher rates at the top end; of course, other tax changes such as higher corporate taxes, especially against corporate deferred taxes, inheritance taxes, luxury taxes, international transactions taxes, withholding taxes on foreign interest and dividend payments, etc., can be part of a broader package to help.

  1. Redistribute Income – Without detracting from the major struggle that will be necessary to win a substantially reduced workweek, we must be honest that the reduced workweek is not a real solution to unemployment or impoverishment. We are not in a situation where there can be ever-continuing incremental gains for the working class under capitalism. The capitalist system is incapable, especially so given the relative decline of Canada and the enveloping environmental crisis, of continuing indefinitely to deliver the goods to increasing numbers of people. But there will be no automatic collapse. Capitalism will continue until the working class is organized and determined to take power, until the working class is prepared to take power from the capitalist class.

Spark #3, pgs. 8-15