In recent weeks, I’ve had dozens of conversations with people who are thinking about how to do new kinds of worker organizing, both within the traditional labor movement and outside of it. Overwhelmingly, organizers and policy experts express a need to find a “new narrative” that can compete with the “sexiness” of the tech industry’s gig economy.
It’s hard for us to contemplate a new narrative, because we’re so committed to fighting for our old one. After all, through the stalwart efforts of the Fight for 15, and the Our Wal-Mart campaigns, we’ve finally gotten a sitting United States president to say the words that we love to repeat, over and over again:
“No one should work full-time and live in poverty.”
We don’t think too much, though, about the message that framing sends to people who aren’t us. Take a step back, and hear that sentence (if you can) with fresh ears. How does it sound, if you’re a part-time worker? What if you’ve tried to get full-time hours and your boss won’t let you have them? What if you choose to work part-time because you split shifts of child-raising with your spouse because you can’t afford day care, even if you both work full-time? What if you’re a student who needs to work to help pay your way through college, or you’re in high school, and have a job to help your mom with expenses? What if you’re an undocumented worker, who has to stand on a corner and hope that someone picks you up for a shift of landscaping that day?
Do you deserve to live in poverty?
It kind of sounds like we think you do.
We wanted a 40-hour workweek back in the day because at that time, many workers had a 60-hour workweek. We weren’t organizing to increase people’s hours to 40—we were fighting to be able to spend more time at home. The fight for the 40-hour work week was able to engage hundreds of thousands of workers in a fight that lasted for generations because it promised them something much, much better than what they currently had.
What does our current fight for full-time hours make people think?
“Great, I can spend more time at work, a place I mostly don’t like. Yes, maybe I’ll be more able to pay my bills—but I’ll spend less time with the people I love.”
“I work full-time now, and I don’t live in poverty. This doesn’t fix my problem of overwork, and feeling like I’m missing out on the things I really enjoy. So I guess this movement isn’t for me.”
Obviously, people in our movement are not trying to make workers spend more time doing things they hate, and less time with people that they love—but it takes a couple of levels of analysis to understand that. A top-line message that needs a couple of levels of analysis to really land is not an effective top-line message. We don’t need polling to tell us that. We can see it, every day.
I think the question we really ought to be asking ourselves is, “why are we still fighting for the 40-hour workweek?”
While some of us in the movement are crazy and actually enjoy working more than 40 hours in a week, we ought to know by now that many people would prefer more flexibility, rather than being locked in to a 9-to-5, an 11-to-7, or any other formal schedule. In fact, a large part of the appeal of gig economy work is that it is something you can turn on and off with the click of a button. Only got an hour to drive today? No problem. Family emergency in the middle of a planned ‘shift’ of delivering packages? Just deliver what you’ve got in your car, and shut down the app.
The underlying reason that we’re still fighting for a 40-hour-workweek, of course, is that in our current context, that’s the best way to fight for economic stability for workers.
But if what we actually want is economic and personal stability for all, why don’t we just say that? Why are we limiting our fight for economic stability only to those people who are capable of working 40 hours a week? We can dream bigger, and in doing so, we can build a movement to win our dream that includes many more people.