There is a widespread agreement that contemporary innovations and development in automation, computing, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) poses, at the very least, the possibility of disruption and changes in labour markets and employment.
These rapid developments have caused much anxiety among unions and others who are interested in labour markets as the prospect of mass unemployment precipitated by automation and computerisation seems evident. But this is not a new challenge for the trade union movement.
It was a hot topic at the TUC Congress in 1956, where people were talking about a new “electronic computer” developed by the food manufacturer Lyons. The Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) could work out the payslips for 10,000 employees in four hours — a job that previously required 37 clerks.
The TUC echoed the optimism of John Maynard Keynes’ belief that this technology could usher us forth toward a more prosperous leisure society: ‘Automation offers the prospect of higher pay, greater leisure, and healthier and less strenuous work’, but the TUC argued unions would need to make sure the benefits of greater productivity were shared with workers. Our objectives and our optimism today remain much as they were in 1956, albeit in a radically altered technological environment.
Trade unions have made it their goal to ensure that the benefits of automation and technological development lead to better working lives. This can be in the form of elimination of repetitive or dangerous tasks, or the reduction in working hours but with maintenance of pay. The four-day week gives expression to this objective.
When Fórsa led on the campaign for a four-day working week in 2019, we were slightly taken aback by the enthusiasm expressed by employers and their representatives. But it would appear they recognise the productivity potential of a four day week, and some employers have already taken the first steps into this new working week with promising results.
Aside from the potential gains in productivity, there is also the potential for employees to achieve greater balance between their life at work and their life beyond work, and it opens up the potential for much improved gender equality in the workplace. The shorter working week is also an employee dividend that has the potential to improve morale.
Let’s imagine this comes to pass. It will dramatically alter road traffic flow between our suburbs, towns and cities, which is currently unsustainable both for our environment and our mental health. If we include a shift of emphasis to more remote working options, including working from home, the environmental dividend is greater still.
I believe the four day week offers the potential of a genuinely better future for workers. Is this an idea whose time has come? The 2020 Covid-19 lockdown has proved to be an unexpected disruptor of the conventions of work for many of us. Perhaps it has taken us to a gateway into another world of work. A world where a four-day working week proves necessary as well as beneficial?