Articles and Essays by Mark Engler

    Taking Back Your Time

    Come October 24, if our country’s workload were on par with the rest of the industrialized world, you would have the rest of the year off.

    On October 24, a small but growing number of Americans will celebrate “Take Back Your Time Day,” calling out of work to honor the vacation they don’t have. This peculiar holiday was organized by a committee of economists and nonprofit advocates in response to the fact that, as a society, we are working more than ever before. Come this Friday, if our country’s workload were on par with the rest of the industrialized world, you would have the rest of the year off.

    When compared with workers in Western Europe, the average American will work 350 hours more per year, the equivalent of nine extra weeks. Furthermore, a study by the International Labor Organization reports that in 2000 the average U.S. worker put in 199 more hours than in 1973.

    Despite working hard, many people are barely staying afloat in the modern economy. Our days are filled with stress. Our meals are rushed. And as much as it saves time, technology creates more clutter and more burdens. We have less time to spend with our families; less time to invest in our communities; less time to relax.

    There are two sides to this dilemma. On one hand, increasing time at work is part of a larger trend in which working and middle class Americans find themselves economically pinched. Our national mythology contends the U.S. economy is inexorably marching towards progress — that each generation is better off than their parents were. But data indicates that the last several decades have not been boom times for most people.

    While real wages increased steadily after World War Two, they peaked in 1973 and began a prolonged decline. Despite some years of improvement in the late 1990s, average hourly earnings for production and non-supervisory workers have never returned to their level of 30 years ago. With their regular paychecks not going as far as before, people have to put in more hours just to hold steady.

    On top of this, more companies are demanding mandatory overtime from their employees. The hurts not only those who are overworked, but also those who are underemployed. Many low-wage workers are denied the hours they need to break even, and are instead held back as part-timers and contingent workers.

    The other side of America’s anti-holiday comes from our shared consumer shopping spree. More and more, non-stop work is a means of paying for a lifestyle overflowing with things. The fact that household debt has soared to record levels in recent years relative to disposable income should prompt questions about our spending: Does anyone really need that wide-screen plasma TV? The new SUV? By redefining things that once might have been luxury splurges as necessities, we have traded away the time to enjoy family, community, and leisure.

    Celebrating “Take Back Your Time Day” helps us to think about ways to live more simply, spend less, and reduce our workloads. The holiday’s organizers take inspiration from Earth Day, which helped spur the emergence of the Environmental Protection Agency and legislation like the Clean Air Act within two years of its inception. In a promising symbolic step, the Senate responded in early September to concerns about overwork with Resolution 210, which designates October “National Work and Family Month” and affirms a “balance between work and personal life.”

    Going beyond consciousness-raising and addressing the wage side of the equation, however, presents a more difficult task.

    Historically, labor unions have been a key vehicle through which people have fought for fair pay and reasonable hours. As one bumper sticker reminds us, the unions are “the folks who brought us the weekend” in the first place, leading historic struggles for the 40-hour workweek.

    Not coincidentally, the time crunch we have experienced in past decades has corresponded with a dramatic weakening of the American labor movement. The percentage of the nonagricultural workers represented by unions fell from 27.8% in 1970 to 13.6% in 2000, according to a 2001 study published in the Monthly Labor Review. Unions in typically well-paying manufacturing sectors suffered the most, with factory jobs being shipped overseas to places with lower wages and fewer environmental protections.

    Labor’s decline has implications that ripple throughout the workforce. Businesses are freer to press their employees to put in longer days. And without unions serving institutional check on pay inequality, American workers are unlikely to receive a fair share of prosperity in times when the economy improves. Although the impacts may seem abstract, we feel them in our increasingly hectic lives.

    Like earlier struggles to limit the working day, today’s drive to win back our time will require public support of unionization drives and demands to strengthen labor law. The right to organize is officially upheld in both U.S. law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but employers routinely flout it in practice. A Bush-appointed National Labor Relations Board has only dimmed the prospects for better enforcement and heightened the need for outside pressure.

    Uncertain whether taking political action or resolving to buy less in the coming holiday season is your right first step toward greater freedom? Try calling out from work for some well-earned relaxation, and take some time to think about it.

    — Mark Engler is a writer based in Philadelphia, an editorial board member at Dissent, and co-author of "This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century" (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website

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