Can Congress create a 32-hour work week? Bernie Sanders says it’s not a ‘radical’ idea

The progressive senator says Americans are overdue for a four-day work week

Alex Woodward
Friday 15 March 2024 00:09 GMT
Bernie Sanders proposes four-day work week

An overwhelming majority of working Americans want a four-day work week. If it survives a powerful opposition, legislation in Congress could make the 32-hour work week a reality.

On Thursday, US Senator Bernie Sanders unveiled legislation that would effectively establish a 32-work week in the US without a loss in pay, eliminating one eight-hour work day from millions of Americans’ work weeks.

The measure would lower the federal threshold for overtime pay from 40 hours to 32, and it would mandate time-and-a-half pay when hourly wage workers work more than eight hours in a day, and then double pay for workers if they log more than 12 hours in a day – moves that would likely discourage employers from keeping workers on the clock beyond 32 hours a week.

In remarks to the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Thursday, the progressive senator from Vermont and committee chair pointed to the rise in automation and artificial intelligence, explosive leaps in worker productivity, massive gaps in employee wages against CEO earnings, shrinkflation and diminishing inflation-adjusted earnings.

“This is not a radical idea,” he said in prepared remarks. “Who benefits from the exploding technology? The wealthiest people who are doing phenomenally well or working people who are falling further and further behind?”

Democratic House Rep Mark Takano of California, who introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives, called the proposal a “transformative” measure that would be “a win for both workers and work place.”

The legislation has no chance of passage in the currently Republican-controlled House, and only a slim change of surviving the narrowly Democratically controlled Senate, but the measures could give progressive lawmakers, union and labour leaders and advocates a chance to force Congress into a debate about the future of work.

The bill “probably won’t be passing tomorrow,” Mr Sanders joked on Thursday.

It’s also not a new idea in front of Congress, just one that “has not been discussed for decades and decades,” he said.

The last time lawmakers debated the issue was in 1955, when then-United Auto Workers (UAW) leader Walter Reuther gave Congress a glimpse of the future of “automation” that could reduce working hours and create an “important shock absorber” to “reduce the impact of sharp rises in output and increase the manpower requirements in industry and commerce,” Mr Sanders recalled.

“And, yet, today, nearly 70 years later, despite an explosion as we all know in technology and a massive increase in worker productivity, nothing has changed,” he said. “Think about that. Think about the huge transitions we have seen in the economy, but in terms of the work week, nothing has changed.”

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders chairs a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on 14 March.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders chairs a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on 14 March. (Getty Images)

Shawn Fain, current leader of the UAW, told the Senate committee panel that autoworkers often face hip and shoulder surgeries after long hours on factory floors. Workers don’t end their careers wishing they worked longer or made more money, he said. “They wish they had more time.”

More than 28.5 million Americans work more than 60 hours a week, according to Mr Sanders.

“We were talking about a 40-hour workweek 80 years ago, and that is what people today, despite the explosion of technology, are working,” he said. “The sad reality is, Americans now work more hours than the people of most other wealthy nations.”

Despite surges in productivity, technological advances and working hours that far exceed the threshold of full-time employment, many Americans “are living paycheck to paycheck, and can’t take care of their basic needs,” Mr Sanders said.

“The question that we are asking today is a pretty simple question – do we continue the trend that technology only benefits the people on top, or that we demand that these transformational changes also benefits working people?” he said. “And one of these benefits must be a 32-hour workweek.”

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