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Wake-up call

Compressed energy


The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory would be proud of those opposed to Senator Bernie Sanders' proposal for a 32-hour work week. Back in 1911, those entrepreneurs locked the exits so that their immigrant female employees, who in the springtime of their lives were logging 52-hour weeks, couldn't sneak a toilet break while on the company's (almost literal) dime. 

Mission accomplished.

The bosses were consumed by greed and that same greed consumed 146 workers. When fire broke out in the late afternoon of March 25, 1911, they had the freedom to choose death by incineration or by having their bodies crushed when they jumped out a window to the street below.

The fair market value of each life lost was $75, as determined by a civil court. The bosses settled it, reckoning it was part of the cost of doing business. Inflation was high then.

Today, executives take five-hour liquid lunches and do deals on the golf course. Many are horrified at the specter of a shrinking work week for their serfs, even if their workload is unreduced and completed. 

It's the principle of the thing. They see dignity in wage slavery. 

They swear that American exceptionalism is forged on the anvil of hard labor, proving the lesson that to earn a subsistence-enabling paycheck, a worker's reach must exceed their grasp. That entails their enduring without complaint, sacrificing without self-pity, being resigned to stultifying immobility, and yielding to management in all matters and sparing natural envy.

And spewing naked gratitude for their electronically generated paycheck. 

Management would whole-heartedly approve, if covered by insurance, a lobotomization of that portion of the brain from which the worker's spirit of self-determination may arise. Bosses must wear, with equal measure of risk and glory, their inherent, lead-lined mantle of accountability and that's why they get the big bucks and an untimed duty schedule, they would have us believe.

That makes me laugh more than an Ali G interview. 

When CEOs bankrupt a company, they bail out with diamond-encrusted parachutes, sometimes even after a few months at the helm. Workers take the fall. Accountability is indeed asymmetrical. It is lopsided to favor management.

Auto workers often log more hours in a week than their top management does in a month. Teachers typically commit double their official duty hours to fulfill their responsibility and "psychic wage" but can be written up for theft of service if closed circuit cameras show them cutting out a minute early.

Shawn Fain, the president of the United Auto Workers, noted in Senate testimony last month that there are indeed people “who don’t want to work.” 

“But those aren’t the blue-collar people. Those aren’t the working-class people. It’s a group of people who are never talked about for how little they actually work and produce, and how little they actually contribute to humanity,” People’s World quoted the union president as saying. “The people I’m talking about are the Wall Street freeloaders, the masters of passive income."

Still, breadwinners must tremble for their wealth, because their material stability depends on it. Pride and dignity are relegated to the junior varsity lineup, because many workers cannot underwrite them.

Whenever there's a proposal to raise the minimum wage or compress the workweek, the business lobbyists and lackeys prophesize the collapse of civilization. Louisiana Republican Senator Bill Cassidy called Sanders' 32-hour week "napalm.”

Cassidy has a future as a contractor and specialist in lyrical military poet.

Technology and artificial intelligence have mercifully slashed the time needed to meet essential productivity goals. That's long been evident in agriculture and manufacturing. Around the world, both among private sectors and governments, the results of pilot projects in workweek reduction have confirmed that productivity is enhanced, because workers take fewer sick days and time off for childcare. 

Nations with the longest workweeks tend to heavily rely on foreign aid or have economies with accelerated transitioning from agriculture to manufacturing.

Nothing in Sanders' bill prevents or penalizes additional hours willingly worked. His bill is neither radical nor anti-business. "What's radical is that over $50 trillion in wealth has been redistributed from the bottom 90 percent to the top 1 percent over the past 50 years. It's time that the financial gains from technology benefit workers, not the 1 percent," he says, sounding a bit preachy but impeccably logical.

"Dead on arrival,” quoth the raven Kevin O'Leary,  founder of his namesake private venture capital investment company.

Most European nations plus countries like Israel and Canada, have shorter workweeks than we do, and their industrial output, standard of living and health care ranks on the global "happiness index" are equal to ours here or higher. 

We still beat out Gambia, Myanmar and some other competitors.

Rich Lowry of the National Review calls Sanders' practical dream a "scheme … a prescription for poverty" and sniffs the odor of Marxism. Apologists of unrestricted free-market cutthroat economic theory deem such an unburdening of workers millstones a deep-down practicum in national legacy betrayal.

Sanders claims that more than half the workforce works over 50 hours weekly, yet the average worker makes nearly $50 a week less, adjusted for inflation, than a half-century ago, during which time productivity soared 400 percent.

Relaxing rigidity in work schedules has improved job performance, no matter where or in what form it is has been implemented. "Flexitime,” which involves a third day off from work each week, with its hours being distributed among the remaining days, has been widespread in the UK for ages.

The Fair Labor Standards Act should be amended to reflect a shorter work week, as envisioned by Sanders and U.S. Representative Mark Takano, a California Democrat and a senior member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, who observes that bosses would also benefit because "shorter workweeks have been shown to further reduce health care premiums for employers, lower operational costs for businesses and have a positive environmental impact."

South Africa, Belgium and Australia are among the lengthening list of nations boldly experimenting with abbreviated work weeks.

The 18th century emperor, who chastised Mozart because his music had "too many notes," may have been the subliminal inspiration for the latter-day boardroom kings who imagine a similar erroneous connection between the quality of a total body of work and the mere tally of minutes squandered by its producer in their cubby or at their lathe.

"Eternal recurrence,” according to Wikipedia, is "a philosophical concept which states that time repeats itself in an infinite loop, and that exactly the same events will continue to occur in exactly the same way, over and over, for eternity.”

Ditto labor relations. Although the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is defunct.

A 32-hour workweek was first proposed many years ago. Why no traction? Do the powers that be fear the economic system will be rabies?

The almost universal corporate mentality seeks to stimulate productivity and generate wealth by disenthraling the energy of the workers it owns. They are on a fool's errand if they presume to be able to unleash prosperity while tightening the tether and choke-collars with which they have fitted those same workers who alone are capable of delivering it.

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