Protestors call for a four-day working week to tackle climate change outside Glasgow's COP26 climate conference in 2021. Image: 4 Day Week Campaign
The trade union movement won the two-day weekend, the eight hour day and paid holidays, and is currently leading the fight for better pay. Could its next big fight be a four-day week?
The biggest ever trial of the four-day working week, held in the UK, has ended, with a convincing set of results to show for it. The trial captured the imagination of the British public, sparking conversations across the country with workers asking how far off this new way of working could be at their workplace.
Organised by the 4 Day Week Campaign, think tank Autonomy and leading academics at the University of Cambridge and Boston College in the US, the trial saw 61 companies and their 2,900 employees sign up. Almost all of the organisations that took part said they will continue with the arrangement, which saw management take the bold decision to offer their staff a three-day weekend, with no cut to pay.
But what about in workplaces where management isn’t taking the lead?
In the grand scheme of things, the trial involved a very small percentage of the British workforce, but on a wider scale, it has allowed “people to see what is possible” said Aidan Harper, founder of the 4 Day Week Campaign and trade union organiser.
“We’ve definitely been getting more people getting in contact asking people how can I organise for a four day week in my workplace?” he said. “A lot of people want this but don’t know where to start”.
Environmental charity Friends of the Earth moved to a four day work week in December last year as a direct result of union pressure.
Union Unite has been active at Friends of the Earth for a long time, but union representative Fiona Whyte said in the last four years it has “grown in strength and in membership”.
In an unexpected turn of events, when the union proposed to management that they wanted to join the national trial last spring, management suggested they skip the trial altogether.
“We decided not to run a pilot because we thought it wouldn’t be fair to expect people to make such big changes to their lives only on a provisional basis,” Adrian Cruden, head of people at Friends of the Earth, told The Big Issue.
“We wanted to move to a four-day week to improve people’s wellbeing and because we knew it was possible and sustainable,” he continued.
So the organisation has moved – permanently – to a four-day working week, with employees allowed to choose whether they take Monday or Friday as their third day off. With around half her colleagues away one day of the week, Whyte says this also gives her a mostly meetings-free day to “get your head down and crack on”. The organisation continues to function five days a week.
“My sister had a baby the week that we moved to the four day week,” she said. “It’s been amazing for me, we have an aunty day for me to spend with my new nephew”.
As employees of a progressive charity that is dedicated to protecting the natural world, they also felt that moving to a shorter week was in line with their own values of reducing their carbon footprint, said Whyte.
The Big Issue has also heard of conversations taking place at multiple large UK charities regarding the switch to a four-day week.
The charity workers branch of Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) has established a working group dedicated to supporting those keen to push for a four-day week at their workplace, and the 4 Day Week Campaign has rolled out a host of resources for trade unionists on how to make the case to colleagues and management.
The model has even reached the government in Scotland.
A 28-hour work week with no loss of pay has been a “long standing element of the PCS union pay claim for employers in the Scottish devolved sector,” said Ruby Alden Gibson, industrial officer at the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).
In 2021, the union found 85 per cent of Scottish government workers wanted it to explore the introduction of a four-day working week. In December 2021, the Scottish government committed to a public sector four-day working week trial. Alden Gibson said the PCS was frustrated by a lack of progress on the issue but was still in talks with the government.
The wave of strikes that have forced many of Britain’s key services to a standstill for months have largely focused on pay, with unions such as the Royal College of Nursing calling for a pay rise of 5 per cent above inflation. But fundamental changes to the way we work are also at play.
“Workers should organise for what they care about in their workplace,” says Harper, whether that’s reducing their time spent at work, better pay or anything from improved sickness policies to finally getting suitable equipment.
In the last few years there has been less of a focus from trade unions on working time reduction, he explains, particularly given rising inflation that has crippled pay packets by up to 11 per cent.
But many employers, including Rishi Sunak’s government, have argued they simply don’t have the funds to raise pay in line with inflation. While Harper believes this is not a legitimate argument, it does “open space for workers to say ‘either we get a 14 per cent pay increase, or you give us a four-day week’.”
“In some ways the cost of living crisis has opened up the space for workers to demand bigger and better than they have in the past,” he said.
“You cannot feed yourself with extra hours, and you cannot give your landlord that rent money… but you can save money with childcare through those extra hours and it does result in a significant hourly pay increase.”