Why should unions fight for lower working time when workers’ purchasing power has been so drastically eroded by inflation in recent years? Raising pay will always be central to union demands, and industrial unions have seen some recent successes in this arena.

However, faced with employer reticence to agree raises that match high-levels of inflation, and worker demands for a better work-life balance, working time reduction has become a key to reclaiming wealth and power for labour. As the working day becomes more intense and stressful, not least because of the introduction of new technology, working time reduction is a way for workers to win back more control over their lives.

The media focus on a 4-day week only tells part of the story, particularly in industry, where shift patterns must adapt to 24-hour industrial processes and the demands of tight supply chains. Industrial unions are keen to look at working time holistically by delivering reductions that are meaningful to workers lives, whether that be fewer working days, shorter daily hours, time off for caring responsibilities or more generous holiday allowances.

IndustriAll Europe commissioned Dr Torsten Müller, of the European Trade Union Institute, to conduct a study that shows that working time reduction is not only needed for workers’ wellbeing, but to meet the challenges of the digital and green transitions. Working less is likely part of the answer to work intensification as a result of new technology.

It is also essential to solving the skills gaps that plague industries where green and digital change is happening fastest. Time off can be time to train. It can also be an incentive to attract skilled young people into industries that struggle to compete for workers with digital skills. Done right, working time reduction can therefore be a win-win for workers and companies: a better work-life balance for the former, and a more skilled and productive workforce for the latter. Industrial unions are already making working time reduction a key part of their agenda and including it in their demands to employers.

In Sweden, Spain, Germany and the UK, unions are employing a diverse and innovative range of solutions to deliver for their members. This proves that reducing working time is more than a pipe dream, but it needs strong unions, engaged in collective bargaining, to make it reality. The history of working time reduction in the last century – the adoption of the 40-hour week and the two-day weekend, as well as statutory holiday entitlement – shows that lowering working hours happens because of pressure from organised labour.

If this century is to see another drop in the average hours we work, unions will again be driving that struggle.

And they are driving it successfully: the new Spanish government, for example, has included the 37.5-hour week in its programme. In Italy, at Lamborghini, the social partners recently signed a company agreement that provides for the 4-day week without any loss of pay. On the contrary, the agreement provides for an increase in wages.

Isabelle Barthès, Deputy General Secretary of IndustriAll Europe, said:

"With work-life balance a key priority for workers, their families and trade unions, our booklet and information series on working time reduction comes at an opportune time to contribute to this important debate.

"In the context of the industrial transformation, the new (digital) world of work and the urgent need for industry to attract a highly skilled and motivated workforce, the issue of working time reduction without loss of pay is more relevant than ever".

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Study: The European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) has published a study by Dr. Torsten Müller, which analyses working time trends in the manufacturing sectors in Europe, focusing particularly on the reality in the workplaces of industriAll Europe’s affiliates. The study is based on the most recent academic literature, as well as on reports by industriAll Europe affiliates.