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We Now Have a Democratic-Socialist “Leisure Agenda”

In the United States, we have few holidays, work long hours, and barely get vacation and sick days. There is a better way — we can win more free time and the fundamental right to relax from our bosses.

People enjoy a hot afternoon at the Astoria Pool in the borough of Queens on August 17, 2015 in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

For decades our society has entertained the notion that technological innovation will automatically result in more leisure time for all. Capitalists innovate endlessly in pursuit of profit, and the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the “strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance.” In tending to their own economic interests, the capitalist class might actually hasten the arrival of “the age of leisure and of abundance” for all.

But nearly a century later, Keynes’s dream remains unfulfilled. Workers may be more productive, generating higher profit for capitalists, but work time itself has not been significantly reduced. In the United States, worker productivity has more than doubled since 1973, while real wages have stagnated, and corporate profits have ballooned — and though average work hours have declined slightly, Americans still work far more than European counterparts.

Keynes believed “in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem.” Decades before him, Karl Marx suspected otherwise, warning that the only way workers would get more time to themselves — time which amounts to a loss in potential profits for employers — is by fighting for it. “The determination of what is a working-day,” Marx wrote, “presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.”

Historically, the fight for more free time has been galvanizing to working people. The battle for the eight-hour day was long a driving force for working-class movements in the United States. The country’s first national labor federation raised the demand in 1866, and it wasn’t fully realized in the United States until 1940. The decades between saw bitter class struggle over work hours, with some even sacrificing their lives for a universal legal limit on how much personal time bosses could demand as a condition of employment.

The struggle for free time continues to hold promise for working-class movements, especially in the United States, where people work on average 269 more hours — or thirty-three-and-a-half workdays — per year than the wealth of the country would predict. History demonstrates that people will fight to take their time back. But in order to effectively activate people in that fight, we need specific demands to rally around.

Lucky for us, the People’s Policy Project has come up with a list of ideas. Their report “The Leisure Agenda” was published last week in concert with the Gravel Institute. Many of the ideas detailed by the report’s author, Ryan Cooper, are lifted straight from existing policies in European countries with social-democratic political traditions — that is, stronger traditions of class struggle than we have in the United States. The implementation of these ideas will certainly be met with resistance from employers in the United States, but they’re completely workable in practice. “America’s current pathetically backward labor system is, in a way, a blessing,” Cooper writes, giving us ample opportunity for “copy-pasting proven models from wiser nations.”

The Leisure Agenda report begins with a bleak look at the current state of overwork in the United States before serving a buffet of policy options that would give workers more time for whatever they will. First, Cooper observes that there are only ten federal holidays so far: if we add five more, that’s fifteen days, or three weeks, off work. But three weeks off is still far less than what workers in many other countries get, and besides, workers need to cluster their days off together in order to go on vacation. Cooper recommends a United States Vacation Act that would eventually mandate, after a transition period, a full four weeks of paid vacation a year (currently US workers are guaranteed no paid vacation by law; that’s left up to individual work contracts).

The United States is also one of the only countries that doesn’t mandate paid family leave on a federal level. Cooper recommends a policy of thirty-six weeks of publicly funded paid leave. If a child is welcomed into a home with one parent, that parent gets the full thirty-six weeks. If there are two parents, each parent is allotted eighteen weeks paid time off, but can transfer up to fourteen weeks to the other parent if they want to. If a parent is not currently working, they would still be paid the minimum wage during the first few months of new parenthood, and if a parent is highly paid then their publicly funded stipend would be commensurate with the national average wage.

The United States doesn’t mandate paid sick leave, either, but we can change that. Cooper suggests that every employee who has worked for one month should become eligible for a full year of paid sick leave. The first month would be paid by the employer. If a doctor confirms that they’re still too sick to work after a month, the federal government would pay their wage on the same scale as the proposed family leave policy. And if workers are still sick after a year, they’ll be eligible for disability.

Right now, we have a balkanized and insufficient unemployment benefits program. Cooper recommends overhauling that and guaranteeing a whole year of publicly paid unemployment set at the national average wage. Additionally, he recommends that the government provide a job-seeker allowance for those who have no employment history and would therefore be ineligible for ordinary unemployment benefits — a model already in place in Finland.

Finally, older Americans are staying in the workforce longer because Social Security payments don’t cover the cost of living, and this should stop. “We should be aiming for old-age benefit levels that enable us to bring our elderly employment rates down to the OECD average of elderly employment rates,” Cooper writes.

Which if any of these demands will capture the popular imagination is uncertain, but democratic-socialist and progressive organizations and politicians would do well to advance them. Otherwise, they will remain unthinkable, and no movement around them will emerge. The demand for the eight-hour day didn’t spontaneously appear from thin air — it was pushed by a Boston machinist and labor leader named Ira Steward and presented at the founding convention of the National Labor Union in 1866, specifically as a way to set the work-weary masses into motion behind something concrete.

There’s great political potential not only in the struggle for free time, but also in the attainment and exercise of it. As Marx wrote, “Free time — which is both idle time and time for higher activity — has naturally transformed its possessor into a different subject, and he then enters into the direct production process as this different subject.” The more a person has time to observe and consider the world, and to access “the accumulated knowledge of society,” the more confident they become in acting to change it.

Of course, not everyone will spend their free time accessing higher knowledge. Some will spend it loafing around, and that’s fine, too. Relaxation is a right as fundamental as freedom — in fact, a person with no time to relax is not someone we can credibly consider free.