Part-Time Work


from the New Unionist, Sept. 1997, pages 1-2


While today it means low pay, no benefits and working two or three jobs to make ends meet, it is possible for everyone to work less without sacrificing the things we need and want.


What's wrong with working part-time?

Nothing, if you're making enough to live full-time. But, as everyone knows, part-time jobs don't pay enough to live on, nor as a rule do they include necessary health insurance and other benefits.

Most so-called part-time workers are actually full-time workers, holding down two or three part-time jobs in order to make ends meet. Millions of workers with legitimate full-time jobs also need another, part-time job because the full-time job pays too little.

The fact is, Americans work more hours per year than workers in any other industrialized country except Japan. And we're working more in this country than we were 25 years ago, trying to make up for the 20% drop in real hourly wages since 1973 by putting in more hours.

The demand for more full-time jobs, which was central in the UPS strike, is a demand for job security, benefits and fewer working hours. Working several part-time jobs means more time spent commuting, and waiting between jobs, which adds up to more time away from home than working one full-time job.

If both mom and dad are spending 10,12 or more hours a day away from home, family life inevitably suffers. Nor is there the time-or energy-to get involved in community affairs. Add in the stress of being on the go all the time, and you've got the perfect recipe for neglected kids, divorce, mental anguish, emotional crackup.

Of course, when workers are working more for less, profits soar. The stock market rockets to new highs, and we hear over and over from the "experts" how we now have the ideal economy. The only thing that could upset this gravy train, it seems, is if wages should go up!

Something is clearly out of whack if a nation's economic health depends on its people doing poorly. Yet this senseless contradiction is the "normal" condition in j capitalist economic system, where the nany work to enrich a few who don't do my productive work.

Trying to finesse around this vonflict of interest between capital and labor with the argument that companies making more money will then pay their workers more-a theory embraced by the unions for many years-is a proven failure. U.S. companies today are flush with cash, but wages are only inching up where they're going up at all.

It's not a question of whether the corporations are "greedy" or not. It's a limple matter of the law of the market- place: the law of supply and demand.

Supply and demand determines the price of labor just as it determines the price of any other commodity. Yes, in this system labor is a commodity, bought and sold on the labor market.

Today in the U.S. demand for labor is high relative to supply: jobs are plentiful and the unemployment rate is low. This is exactly what has Greenspan and the other official protectors of corporate profits so nervous, that the tight labor market may push wages up.

But today the labor market is not confined to national boundaries. You have to look at the global supply of labor because now it's possible for companies to move their operations overseas, especially to third-world countries where dispossessed peasants stream to the cities looking for employment. If wages should start escalating here it will only hasten the exodus of capital, lowering the domestic demand for labor and driving its price down once again. And once the economy slips into recession- as it inevitably will-U.S. unemployment will move back up and wages will tumble.

The fact that labor under capitalism is a commodity, ruled by the law of supply and demand, explains another puzzling contradiction: how people can get poorer by working harder and producing more wealth.

Although workers produce all the economic wealth in the form of goods and services, they own none of it. The product is owned by their employers, be they small businessmen or multinational corporations. What the workers get of their product is what they can buy back from the owners, using the wages they are paid by the owners for the use of their labor.

Since the workers are not working for themselves, they may increase their output by 10, 20 or 50 per cent and still not see a penny of the increase. What the worker receives for her work is something quite different from the product of her work, and that something is determined by the supply of and demand for her in the labor market.

Since 1973 the output of goods and services has increased enormously as workers have worked longer hours and improved technologies have increased their output per hour. But since that time workers have received less in real terms for each hour of their work.

The value of that added output has gone instead to capital, with the result that the owners of capital have increased their share of the national wealth and national income while the nonowners, the workers, have seen their share decrease.

Now imagine for a moment that instead of what actually happened the past 25 years we had had a different economic system. In this different system labor, instead of being a commodity bought by capital, was itself the owner of the machinery and facilities of production and distribution. As owner, labor would be working for itself, and so would own its own product.

In one year so many goods and services would have been produced, which would have been distributed among their owners, which would include all the workers who contributed 1 abor toward their production. This would be all the useful and necessary labor, including that of women and men working at home caring for children, and doing all the other domestic labor required to maintain a household.

The following year the population may have increased a bit so there would be more people of working age to help in production. Also, there may have been new technologies introduced which would have reduced the amount of labor needed to produce the same number of goods and services. What would have happened?

The people might have decided to continue to work the same number of hours as before, which would mean more goods and services were produced and people had more things. Or the people might have decided they didn't need more things and instead wanted more free time away from work. The workday then would have been reduced for all, while their consumption of goods and services remained the same.

In a system of labor ownership, where basic economic decisions are made democratically by the people through a workplace-based government, every advance in technology directly benefits all the people by either increasing the amount of goods and services for consumption or shortening the workweek. With the rapid advances now going on in computer technologies, it's not hard to imagine producing everything we need with a few hours of work per person per week.

In the capitalist system, where goods are produced to sell for a profit, production has to keep growing whether we need the stuff or not. In a labor-owned system, once we have enough of whatever well quit making it, conserving resources in the process. When the current incentive for waste and obsolescence-in order to keep selling more-is removed, the overall level of production could actually fall, greatly easing the stress on the environment as well as on us.

If all this sounds too good to be true it's only because what we have now is too crazy to be true. But, sadly, it is true, and as a result we've become accustomed to accept the irrational as normal, or at least unavoidable.

But it eventually reaches the point where irrational contradictions become intolerable and must, one way or another, be resolved.

While no one can set a date when people will finally rebel against the economic and social madness, the operations of the capitalist system itself guarantee the time will come.

Of course, there's no guarantee that when the time comes it will be the New Unionist program that is adopted by the majority and put into effect. All kinds of schemers, crackpots and opportunists will be in the field to lead the people in every direction but the economic reconstruction of society.

It will require an intense political struggle to win the day for New Unionism. This is a struggle that can be carried out only by a highly organized and dedicated political movement, the movement the New Union Party is today working to create.