Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book Review: Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet

Anders Hayden, Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet: Work Time, Consumption, and Ecology (Toronto: Between the Lines 2000)

Jim Stanford
Canadian Auto Workers
Labour/Le Travail
ANDERS HAYDEN is commonly known as the guy who works 24 hours a day for a shorter work week. As a staff person for the Toronto-based 32 Hours campaign and as a volunteer activist, no one has done more than Hayden in helping to build political support in Canada for policies to reduce average working hours. Now, with the publication of Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet, Hayden also makes an impressive intellectual and empirical contribution to our understanding of this important but complex issue. The book describes a holistic vision of progressive social and economic policy reforms, rooted in reductions in working hours combined with measures, especially ecological tax reforms, to enhance the "eco-efficiency" of current economic activity.

Shorter working hours are commonly advanced as a simple solution to unemployment. If there is a shortage of job openings, then a shorter work week will spread available work around to more people, thus reducing the incidence of unemployment. Hayden is more careful than most shorter work-time advocates in noting the limitations of this rather mechanistic argument. He cautions that shorter work-time should not be seen as a form of "collective austerity" that is, as a means of sharing unemployment. Rather, a stronger campaign for shorter work-time will be built by viewing it as a positive goal in and of itself, as a means of capturing the benefits of technological development and productivity growth in the form of increased leisure time (rather than material consumption), and as a means of reshaping our economic activities to become more harmonious with ecological as well as economic priorities.

Hayden also offers a careful critique of what he terms the "productivist" trend in the shorter work-time movement. It is often suggested that shorter working hours can enhance hourly productivity (because workers are more rested and less harried), thus delivering cost savings which can largely or even wholly offset the cost to employers of the work-time reduction. In this analysis, employers must be somehow irrational not to see the win-win potential in reducing regular working hours.

But for Hayden, this approach misses the point on at least two grounds. One fundamental rationale for reducing working hours is to shift our overall lifestyle away from material consumption and in favour of leisure time. The productivist argument inverts this to propagate shorter working hours as being conducive to more output (and hence consumption). It also underestimates the extent of employer resistance to demands for shorter work-time. There are concrete economic factors behind the desire of employers to impose longer hours on an ever-smaller group of well-paid "core" employees, and the consequent polarization of working hours between that core group and another group of underutilized peripheral workers. This dominant trend in employment practices over the past two decades reflects the socially destructive but powerful bottom-line interests of employers; we should not be naïve about the likelihood of winning them voluntarily to the cause of shorter working hours in the face of these economic pressures.

Indeed, the history of working-time struggles indicates strongly that more progress on this issue will result not from naïve appeals to employers that shorter work-time can be good for them, as well. Rather, it will require the adoption by workers of shorter work-time as an important goal (in both collective bargaining and in broader political struggles), and the successful mobilization of those workers and their allies to impose that preference over the resistance of their employers.

One especially useful feature of Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet is its detailed review of the successes and failures of various concrete shorter work-time initiatives, in Canada and numerous other countries (both industrialized and developing). Both the politics and the practicalities of work-time reduction initiatives can be very tricky, and Hayden’s international overview gives us valuable and concrete insights. There are numerous ways in which lifetime hours of work can be reduced – a shorter work day, a shorter work week, longer vacations, earlier retirement, leaves for parenting or education – and different approaches tend to demonstrate different degrees of success in maintaining worker support and stimulating new job creation. Hayden’s Chapters 6 and 7 provide a dense, convenient, and invaluable primer of "best practices" for anyone wanting to learn quickly about the plethora of ways in which work time can concretely and effectively be reduced.

Like most economists, I still have some difficulty with the broad ecological critique of economic growth which underpins many of Hayden’s policy prescriptions. Hayden is more careful and nuanced than many environmentalists on this point, but he still tends to portray economic growth in general as damaging to the goal of environmental sustainability. I would argue that this approach, broadly shared within the green movement, ultimately undermines the struggles for both shorter work-time and environmental protection.

In the first place, given the green movement’s obsession with the measurement errors implicit in conventional economic concepts (like Gross Domestic Product), Hayden, like others, at times ironically conflates economic growth with the production of what he calls "more stuff."A full 70 per cent of Canada’s GDP is composed of services, not "stuff." Much represents the value-added in the production of public caring services which progressives value highly (and which Hayden himself wants to see more of).

To be sure, we need to think carefully about how economic growth occurs, and what types of goods and services are produced, in order to regulate and limit the environmental consequences of that growth. Some types of economic growth are grossly destructive of the environment (such as monster home suburbs, sport-utility vehicles, and tar sands developments). Other types of economic growth seem benign: like the caring services we need more of. A few types are even environmentally beneficial, like investments in emissions reduction or the construction of new parks, expenses which show up in the GDP as surely as any purchase of a new Ford Explorer.

The challenge, I would argue, is not to try to stop economic growth (which is the ultimate if often unstated conclusion of the assumption that growth is generally bad for the environment), but rather to radically regulate growth, ensuring in particular that we get more public services consumption and less private goods consumption. The GDP can still grow, jobs can still be created, average incomes can still rise, and human living standards will improve (in both material and non-material ways). But the impact of economic activity on the environment could be moderated significantly.

This is a daunting challenge, admittedly, especially in light of the growing and bleak evidence regarding energy consumption and global warming. But on the other hand, if we equate a green economy with a no-growth economy, then the political constituency for a green economy is likely to evaporate quickly. Average workers will quickly conclude (wrongly, in my view) that ecological goals are incompatible with their legitimate desire for a higher standard of living (measured correctly, and not by how much "stuff" they consume). A no-growth economy, far from constituting a green utopia, would in reality be marked by growing poverty and inequality, a popular backlash against both ecological rules and government in general, and a chronic lack of real resources to dedicate to environmental goals (such as improved infrastructure or the amelioration of environmental damage). And it will take a lot more than Hayden’s environmental taxes to bring about the necessary pro-environment regulation of the economy. (To be fair he also discusses, albeit in less detail, other possible forms of environmental regulation to promote his goal of "eco-efficiency.") Environmentalists and progressive economists need to do some networking about the limitations of market price signals in bringing about desired changes in economic behaviour, before we jump so enthusiastically on the "green tax" bandwagon. In many cases, direct regulations of the command-and-control type will be infinitely more effective than the ecological tax reforms so popular with market-oriented reformers.

More convincing and appealing to me is Hayden’s clarion call to build a new cultural politics which rejects the dominant ideology of consumerism. If we can struggle against the commercial notion that one’s happiness is directly correlated with the amount of one’s private consumption (and generally with the most ostentatious and shallow forms of that private consumption), then we will build a stronger basis for all kinds of progressive goals. This new politics would clearly assist in mobilizing support for shorter work-time, since the assumed trade-off between material consumption and leisure time will become less worrisome. It will also assist in the all-important struggle against tax cuts, and to preserve popular support for public forms of consumption (such as public or caring services, parks, and public transportation).

Hayden correctly identifies that it will be a huge challenge to overcome the cultural factors contributing to the "work-and-spend" mentality which dominates so many Canadians’ lives. But this goal seems to me to be an important prerequisite for future progressive success, on the work-time issue and on many other issues as well, and Hayden challenges us convincingly to take up the challenge.

Working hours have become more polarized in Canada over the last decade. Employers are demanding the right to impose longer hours on a select group of core workers, while other workers scrabble to find enough hours of work in part-time jobs to survive. Right-wing governments, like the Harris regime in Ontario, have targeted the rollback of existing work time-regulations, inadequate as they are, as a major political priority. Anders Hayden’s book couldn’t have come at a better time to help labour unions and other activists resist these regressive trends, and seize the initiative once again in the fight over time. I heartily recommend it for anyone with an academic or an activist interest in this important issue.

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