“Why did organized labor struggle for shorter hours? A diachronic comparison of trade union discourse in Germany”


-hour struggles are a key element in the historical study of organized labor. Little attention has been paid, however, to long-term changes in the rationale underlying demands for work time reductions. Comparing arguments formulated by German workers around 1900 with arguments put forward half a century later, this article detects a fundamental narrowing of discourse in twentieth-century labor disputes. While trade unions once drew on a strikingly broad rationale when demanding work time reductions, the post-WW II decades witnessed a strategic departure from arguments that had long constituted the bedrock of shorter-hour rhetoric. Analyzing a leading theoretical labor organ as well as the members’ publication of West Germany’s largest single-industry union, the article reveals that work time reductions were increasingly framed as a powerful measure to improve workers’ health and safety and to increase leisure and family time. In so doing, West German trade unions abandoned a crucial link between work time reductions and the vision for a more democratic and participatory society. The article thus shows how strategic bargaining decisions helped undermine the rich legacy of the historical struggle for shorter hours.
Last updated on 09/26/2019