Enough Sweating!

by Lothar Galow-Bergemann

In a study worth reading, sociologist Steffen Liebig examines models of working time reduction from a social and ecological perspective

german version

[This article published on January 20, 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet.]
published in Jungle World, January 20, 2022

For decades, trade unions have made little progress in demanding a reduction of working hours. After the struggles of the 1980s over the 35-hour week, a leaden calm settled over the country for what felt like an eternity. The temporary introduction of a four-day week at VW between 1994 and 2006 gave rise to certain hopes, but these were soon abandoned. All in all, there was a threat of regression. Although hardly a trade union conference went by without a new standard for working hours being demanded in eloquent and well-founded terms, the results were not forthcoming. Those who for decades have only been able to make demands and move practically nothing are obviously in crisis. This shows the dwindling power of the trade unions under the conditions of global competition between locations and technologically driven productivity growth.

The increased efficiency could actually be used for radical reductions in working hours. If „the economy“ functioned according to reasonable rules, it would not make „superfluous“ people out of work that is finally becoming superfluous. But the prevailing economic system immediately generates tangible crises if it cannot grow permanently and generate profits. If it continues to do so, it plunges the world into crisis. Nowhere is this dilemma more evident than in dealing with global warming. For the ever more intensive and rapid use of human and natural resources is not due to the sensible satisfaction of needs or the production of material wealth, but solely to the functional logic of capitalism. With the climate crisis caused by it, the planet is literally being burned up.

It is the dependence of individuals on their jobs that makes this system, which in itself is absurd, so stable. If this economic system goes into crisis, people’s livelihoods are threatened. Although it would be ecologically sensible to build far fewer and much longer-lasting cars, under the given circumstances this would result in mass unemployment and poverty.

Not only the system, but also the very concrete work leaves more and more people with unpleasant feelings. They suffer directly from it and would rather give up their jobs today than tomorrow. For those under 40, the outlook is particularly depressing, because they know that they will hardly be able to earn a pension on which they can live.

Steffen Liebig, a sociologist and postdoctoral researcher in the special research area „Structural Change of Property“ at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, attempts to bring together social and ecological aspects of work in his readable study „Arbeitszeitverkürzung als Konvergenzpunkt?“ (Reducing Working Hours as a Point of Convergence?). His volume should interest climate activists and growth critics as well as trade unionists. If only because both still (want to) know far too little about each other. However, the elimination of this „double void“ (Liebig) is a prerequisite for the formation of assertive social alliances that can develop and realize a radical socio-ecological transformation perspective.

In a pleasant contrast to the debate of the degrowth movement, for example, which is largely focused on aspects critical of consumption, Liebig directs attention to the often neglected sphere of work and production, for without their fundamental transformation there will be little progress. He examines trade union and growth-critical theory and practice, thus underpinning his core thesis that „a policy of reducing working hours is suited to represent a point of convergence between trade union positions on the one hand and socio-ecological to growth-critical concepts of work on the other.“

Because it is necessary to „make working time relations dance,“ as Liebig loosely puts it, the author follows with particular interest the current trade union debates on the introduction of a 28-hour week, electoral models and working time policies oriented toward the life course. He notes a „renaissance of working time policy“ among some unions. Detailed interviews with leaders of IG Metall, Verdi and the railroad union EVG convey experiences, possibilities and limits of trade union collective bargaining policy.

In view of the long-standing decline in collective bargaining in many areas, Liebig emphasizes that the unions cannot bring about the necessary changes, for example in the pension issue, on their own. For „working time policy to be radicalized and expanded beyond the existing collective bargaining framework,“ he says, broad social alliances and movements are needed. In other words, without the participation of the climate and environmental protection movements, the unions will not really get anywhere. Conversely, the climate movement needs union support.

The example of the „future of pensions“ could also be used to demonstrate something fundamental, but unfortunately Liebig omits to do so. The age structure of the population, which is moving inexorably away from the pyramid model, is one of the many indications that monetarized social relationships are no longer sustainable in principle. Not only the increasingly crisis-prone capitalist economy, but also the requirements of the necessary transformation point to the fact that reliance on future financing of pensions, care activities and other important areas of life, which ultimately has the assumption of permanently solid tax and social security revenues as an unspoken prerequisite, is simply illusory. Anyone who wants to overcome the social and ecological crisis must face the fact that the principle of „earning money as a means of subsistence,“ i.e., wage labor, tends to offer prospects to fewer and fewer people. A transformation movement would therefore have to attack this principle offensively.

Liebig does not go quite that far. It is precisely the reference to the „complicity between labor and capital“ that he dislikes in the reflections of the French social philosopher André Gorz, which in many respects are still very topical. Just how right Gorz was in doing so is shown by the climate crisis, against the background of which Liebig’s talk of the „class character of capitalist growth“ is hardly convincing. Gorz’s categorical critique of the working society is more topical than ever. The transition to solidary forms of social wealth production is necessary for survival.

Incidentally, this would not even have to mean the end of the trade unions, quite the contrary. As a mass organization of experts on material wealth, they could play a central role in a successful transformation process, of which they themselves would not least be the subject. The search for viable paths of transformation also requires a radical critique of labor, if only because the identitarian reference to labor today again proves conspicuously susceptible to authoritarian-fascist alleged „alternatives.“

Despite some blanks, the study is exceedingly valuable. It gives important hints for all theoretically and practically interested in ecology and the world of work and should not be missing in any trade union house or environmental center.

Steffen Liebig: Working Time Reduction as a Point of Convergence? Social-ecological work concepts, growth critique and trade union collective bargaining policy. Campus Verlag, Frankfurt/Main 2021, 400 pages, 45 euros.

Translation published on Saturday, Apr. 16, 2022 in Los Angeles Indymedia : Activist News (scroll)

With thanks to Marc Batko