From the TUC

Unions and environmentalism – uneasy bedfellows?

08 Mar 2010, by in Economics, Environment, Labour market

Unions are increasingly working with the environmental movement. We represent – or stand in solidarity with – many of those most likely to be badly hit by climate change. Union campaigns for health and safety in the workplace have always had much in common with wider campaigns against pollution. Many environmentalists have a similar commitment to social justice and internationalism that inform the best kinds of trade unionism – the victims of environmental degradation are usually the people for whom unions speak. Unions know that we need big changes in the way the economy work – and have helped put the concept of just transition on the international agenda.

But there are problems too.

Some conflicts are inevitable. Environmentalists want to close down polluting activities that may employ lots of people. Unions wants clean coal, while some environmentalists want no coal at all. Unions want jobs at airports, environmentalists are less keen.

But while this can cause many difficulties, it does not add up to a strategic reason not to work together when we do agree. Unions are always dealing with industrial and workplace change. Many greens recognise the employment aspects of the changes they seek. Unions recognise that the various proposals for green new deals are designed to create new and worthwhile jobs. And it wasn’t environmentalism that closed Britain’s coal mines.

 (As an aside, given the politics of many climate change deniers, Mrs Thatcher was an early believer in climate change. Here she is from 1990:  “The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.”)

Nor is environmentalism a homogenous movement, indeed it is probably far more diverse than trade unionism. You can certainly describe yourself as both – and many do.

But there are currents within the environmental movement that are more of a problem – and I don’t mean just the fringe nutjobs who really don’t like humans very much.

Two recent publications from the New Economics Foundation have crystallised those worries for me.

First is Growth isn’t possible.

I simply refute that statement. Of course environmentalists have rightly stressed that traditional economics often fails to factor in the environmental and other wider costs for society of economic activity (what economists call externalities). This means that some kinds of growth are not worth having as they end up doing more damage than their benefits. Asbestos is an example that unions understand.   

But arguing that “future growth will have a different form from past growth” or that “real growth is harder than we thought”  is a completely different argument from saying that growth is impossible. Indeed to imply that growth itself is what does the damage is a mirror image of those who ignore externalities.  Neither side has to ask hard questions about how to assess different kinds of growth. Investment in decarbonisation is good for both the environment and economic growth

These arguments are put much better in Matthew Lockwood’s two-part critique at  Political Climate. So I’ll move on.

Second is the call for a 21 hour working week made by NEF authors in 21 hours and summarised here at Left Foot Forwards

Now I’m all for a discussion of working time. 

The TUC has just marked Work Your Proper Hours Day which is when we measure just how much unpaid overtime people are doing (though it has a rather different tone at these times of mass unemployment, than it did in the boom years). 

We support Europe’s legal maximum on working time, which was set for health and safety reasons. We campaign hard to extend flexible working so that people have legal rights to vary their working hours when possible.

I also think that unions can do more to emphasise the autonomy agenda. Perhaps the key indicator of whether people enjoy their job is the amount of autonomy they have in it. Having a say over your working hours is a fundamental measure of autonomy. 

There is an interesting debate about why people have not chosen (or demanded) to take the proceeds of economic growth in the form of shorter working weeks, though I suspect that it may boil down to those who can afford this have the interesting jobs, while those who would like to can’t afford it.

But the impetus for 21 hours is different. It argues that: 

A ‘normal’ working week of 21 hours could help to address a range of urgent, interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.

Let’s look at these in turn.

  • Many of us do overwork, but a 21 hour working week is an entirely arbitrary target. Why not 28 or 35 hours? 
  • Linking unemployment to working time is dangerous. There is not a fixed amount of work to go round (the lump of labour fallacy). If people spend less because they earn half of what they earned before, then unemployment could rise as demand falls. On the other hand there would be shortages of skilled workers that would make some capital investment no longer viable – and hit public services. Talk of phasing this in or raising wages doesn’t quite cut the mustard.
  • Over-consumption would, I suppose fall, if living standards fell – and people had less to spend. But this seems to be an argument that poverty is good for the environment.  Perhaps it is – but it is a profoundly reactionary argument.
  • High-carbon emissions  would possibly go the way of over-consumption. But it may be more complicated than that as I am not sure that people in their leisure time naturally adopt a lower carbon lifestyle than when they are at work. It may cost less to heat Congress House during the week than it does to heat every TUC employee’s home during the week-end. This argument is closely connected to my problems with their views on growth. If your job is installing solar heating then the longer you work the better (at least for the environment, if not you or your family).
  • It is well established that unemployment is bad for your well-being and employment is good – though there are also marginal and highly-stressed jobs that are not much fun. Part-time workers are the most content, so there may be some force to the low-well being argument. But again why 21 hours? Some people may well feel under-employed – and want more.
  • Shortening the working week would not in itself reduce entrenched inequalities – indeed it would make inequalities between those who sell their labour and those who realise rents from assets even greater. I suppose that any chance of implementing a 21 hour working week would require such a radical – if not draconian – alteration in society to stop people suffering extreme poverty that inequalities might reduce, but not from the policy itself.
  • The concluding points are harder to measure – and involve all kinds of value judgements. But it is not obvious that the main barrier to a more environmentally friendly life style is lack of time to live sustainably or that if you give people more time off that’s what they will choose to do. They may just commute further.

In other words this is not an agenda that speaks to trade unions – or really adds up to a practical proposal. 

What links these two reports is the view that economic activity is bad, and that therefore there should be less of it. Roll on the next recession.

While NEF does other work of great interest and progressive intent (such as this work on loan sharks), this is not a view that unions can embrace – and indeed gets in the way of thinking hard about how we reduce the carbon content of economic growth or the politics of working time.  

Fortunately as Political Climate shows, this is not the only environmentalist take on these issues. For unless we can put together progressive programmes that tackle both climate change and inequality then it will be harder to make progress on either.

28 Responses to Unions and environmentalism – uneasy bedfellows?

  1. james
    Mar 9th 2010, 12:17 am

    What Nef are arguing in “growth isn’t possible” is that it’s not sustainable to have *quantitative* economic growth. What they are arguing for is a “steady state” economy – which is a pretty difficult thing to achieve, obviously.

    Given the fact that “decoupling” growth from through-put of non-renewable resources (or of renewable resources at an unsustainable rate) might be possible, “growth” in itself as the target of the attack is perhaps misplaced. But I don’t think they are arguing that economic activity is bad and that there should be less of it – elsewhere they argue that the focus on GDP growth as a macro-economic goal should be replaced by national accounts of wellbeing….

  2. Nigel Stanley

    Nigel Stanley
    Mar 9th 2010, 5:03 pm


    I don’t deny the environmental challenge or that some resources are finite. That is why we need to recognise constraints on growth, consider externalities and change the kind of growth we look to.

    I also agree that there is much to be said for thinking about well-being as an indicator – that seems to me to be one strong argument for reducing inequality, something of a theme for this blog – but improving well-being is a darn sight easier when GDP is increasing rather than in the midst of a depression.

    But that doesn’t seem to be what NEF are arguing – or want us to think they are arguing.

    A steady state economy seems to me to be wanting 0% growth – not quite a recession but infinitesimally close to one.

    I think this is wrong as different economic activities can have the same effect on growth but radically difficult environmental footprints ranging from very negative to extremely positive.

  3. Anna Coote
    Mar 10th 2010, 11:17 am

    As co-author of “21 Hours”, I welcome Nigel Stanley’s thoughtful comments. It is important to emphasise – as we do in the report – that our proposal is for incremental change, over a decade or more, as part of a broader transition to a sustainable future. Our goal, set out in an earlier paper from nef, “Green Well Fair”, is sustainable social justice, defined as the fair and equitable distribution of social, environmental and economic resources between people, countries and generations.
    An important premise is that continuing growth in the developed world is inconsistent with meeting even conservative carbon reduction targets, and I would urge anyone interested in this argument to read not only nef’s “Growth Isn’t Possible” but also Tim Jackson’s “Propserity without Growth”.
    In this context, moving towards a much shorter working week would help to distribute paid and unpaid time more equally, not least between women and men. It would improve opportunities for women to enter the paid labour force and for men to share housework and caring responsibilities.
    The “lump of labour fallacy” is poorly substantiated andtakes no account of the need to decarbonise the economy; in any case, we outline measures that would need to be in place to ensure that those who are unemployed and underemployed actually benefit from a redistribution of paid working time.
    Of course it won’t be easy. Neither will it be easy to reduce inequalities, cut carbon emissions and build a sustainable economy that is not dependent on credit-fuelled consumerism. Our point is that distributions of time, money and carbon are closely interlinked and need to be addressed together.
    Anyone interested in pursuing this debate is welcome to join us at the House of Commons on 23rd March 7-9 pm – registration details are here:

  4. james
    Mar 10th 2010, 2:47 pm

    A third of Tim Jackson’s book concerns the importance of growth, particularly carbon-based growth in developing countries. Perhaps the logic of the argument then is that growth-maximisation should be a lesser macro-economic goal than decarbonisation – given that for growth to continue, it must be greened, otherwise the increased costs (in current market terms) of fossil fuels will stifle economic growth in developed countries?

    I’d like to move the debate on to the question of imports and also ownership.

    Given that there is an amount of carbon embedded in imported goods that perhaps exceeds the amount embedded in domestically produced goods, how seriously should we consider a carbon tax on imports to encourage import substitution, or is this just a green form of protectionism that would harm the devleoping countries?

    And given that, as Elinor Ostrom has observed, co-operative forms of ownership tend to best deliver sustainable development, should we consider co-ownership as the ideal model for private enterprise?

  5. Tim Worstall
    Mar 11th 2010, 3:22 pm

    Blimey, you’re only just noting that nef are fruitcakes? What took so long?

  6. Nigel Stanley

    Nigel Stanley
    Mar 11th 2010, 4:24 pm

    I’ve always assumed that you think we come with a fruit and nut filling. Can we take this as faint praise?

  7. Tom Walker
    Mar 11th 2010, 6:48 pm

    I welcome Nigel Stanley’s frank admission of deep disagreement with certain “currents within the environmental movement” that fundamentally question the sustainability of economic growth. I confess to being strongly attracted to precisely those ideas and I find it frustrating and discouraging when trade unionists simply pass over their discomfort in silence rather than confronting the issues raised by them.

    In rebuttal to Nigel Stanley, I would like to first point out that it is a particular, narrow concept of growth that the nef and Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth take issue with. That concept fixates on the expansion of the GDP and welcomes whatever artificial means are needed to ensure said expansion. That is growth as we know it.

    The reason GDP growth is an imperative in modern capitalist societies is that without it (we are told) there can be no growth — and even a decline — in employment. One can talk about “different kinds of growth” until one is blue (or green) in the face. But the bottom line is that it is aggregate GDP growth that the economists tell us is indispensable to avoid catastrophic unemployment. Of course Keynes himself didn’t take that view. He saw “working less” as the ultimate solution to the problem of full employment. Ask Keynes’s biographer, Robert Skidelsky.

    I’m particularly interested to see the head of Campaigns and Communications for the TUC advancing the “lump-of-labour fallacy” argument as reason why “linking unemployment to working time is dangerous.” I’ve spent the last 12 years researching the lump-of-labour claim and have published two papers on it. To put it rather bluntly, the precursor to the lump-of-labor claim emerged in the 1830s as an anti-trades-union polemic and it evolved in the 1880s and 1890s into the slogan of the union-busting employers associations who opposed the eight-hour day. I would be interested to hear why Nigel Stanley believe “linking unemployment to working time is dangerous” when the great periods of union membership growth occurred in precisely those historical moments when that link was emphasized by unions. Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor could not have been clearer, “”The answer to all opponents to the reduction of the hours of labor could well be given in these words: ‘That so long as there is one man who seeks employment and cannot obtain it, the hours of labor are too long.'”

    Nigel Stanley isn’t alone in invoking the supposed lump-of-labour fallacy. Matthew Lockwood, whose blog critique of “the limits to environmentalism” Stanley cites approvingly, states, regarding Growth Isn’t Possible, “”it’s economically illiterate (for example, reproducing the lump of labour fallacy); and it’s tone is pretty smug.” Let’s examine this “economically illiterate” charge with regard to the lump of labour, though. There has only ever been two peer-reviewed scholarly articles written discussing the history and authenticity of the lump of labour fallacy. Both of them happen to have been written by me and both of them refute the bogus fallacy claim. I won’t call Lockwood or the author of this blog “economic illiterates.” They’re just misinformed.

    Without further ado, here is the abstract to my REview of Social Economy article, “Why Economists Dislike a Lump of Labor”:

    “The lump-of-labor fallacy has been called one of the ‘best known fallacies in economics.’ It is widely cited in disparagement of policies for reducing the standard hours of work, yet the authenticity of the fallacy claim is questionable, and explanations of it are inconsistent and contradictory. This article discusses recent occurrences of the fallacy claim and investigates anomalies in the claim and its history. S.J. Chapman’s coherent and formerly highly regarded theory of the hours of labor is reviewed, and it is shown how that theory could lend credence to the job-creating potentiality of shorter working time policies. It concludes that substituting a dubious fallacy claim for an authentic economic theory may have obstructed fruitful dialogue about working time and the appropriate policies for regulating it.”

  8. Tom Walker
    Mar 11th 2010, 6:56 pm

    I apologize for not proofreading the link to the article, “Why Economists Dislike a Lump of Labor” cited in my previous post.

    It should have read:

  9. Tom Walker
    Mar 11th 2010, 7:22 pm

    I apologize for not proofreading the link to the article, “Why Economists Dislike a Lump of Labor,” mentioned in my previous comment.

    It should have read:

    BTW. the locus classicus of the anti-unionist “fixed amount of work” smear was in a London Times series published in November 1901, titled, “The Crisis in British Industry.” Gompers described the employers associations’ lump-of-labor fallacy propaganda as “a libel and malicious invention of irresponsible and plutocratic foes of organized labor.”

    Perhaps Gompers was wrong? Nevertheless, it would behoove the Campaigns and Communications Head for the TUC to learn something about the claim before jumping on a bandwagon previously occupied by a chap (David M. Parry, president of the National Association of Manufacturers in the early 1900s) who vowed to “set about the task of pulling up, root and branch, the un-American institution of trades unionism.”

  10. John de Graaf
    Mar 12th 2010, 5:09 pm

    This is an important discussion and one that we should be having in the US as well. While I support the view that continued economic growth in rich countries is unsustainable–Tim Jackson’s book is excellent in making this case–I agree with Nigel Stanley that the 21 hours cited by NEF seems a bit arbitrary, even after reading NEF’s document about this.

    If the TUC and US unions would support first, 35, and then 28 hours, as Stanley suggests at least the TUC might, then that is a huge step in the right direction.

    Stanley is totally off though on “lump of labor.” Tom Walker has eloquently shown this “fallacy” to be a fallacy itself. Those who favor shorter hours have not claimed there is only so much work to be done, but that there are limits to the work to be done in each era, whether they be the limits of recession and reduced demand (when all can be employed only by work-sharing or, in part, social spending) or more significantly, the ecological limits to growth which we are already hitting hard.

    In either case, work-sharing, including such effective policies as Kurzarbeit, provides valuable ways forward. It can also help workers adjust to the idea of more time and less stuff, which is good for the long term, again as we confront ecological limits, and good, as NEF points out, for health, families, communities and personal growth for the workers themselves.

    What I envy is that you in the UK are having this debate and that organized Labor is engaged. That hasn’t happened in the States yet but it needs to.

    John de Graaf, Executive Director, TAKE BACK YOUR TIME (

  11. Tim Worstall
    Mar 12th 2010, 5:31 pm

    “or more significantly, the ecological limits to growth which we are already hitting hard.”

    This keeps appearing everywhere. Yet we’ve got a huge great report, thousands of pages of it, about the economy over the next century. It’s called the IPCC report.

    In it we see that the only ecological limit to future economic growth is carbon emissions. Get a low or zero carbon form of energy generation and there are again no limits.

    No, don’t take it up with me that there are obviously other limits. Go and take it up with the IPCC. They are the scientific consensus, after all.

  12. Tom Walker
    Mar 12th 2010, 6:17 pm

    In some respects the 21 hour figure is indeed “arbitrary” as would be any number one could highlight, be it 28 hours, 32, 35 or 48. The 19th century demand for the eight-hour day was indeed denounced on the grounds of its “arbitrariness”. In fact, the title of a pamphlet issued by the National Association of Manufacturers in 1903 was “Eight Hours by Act of Congress: Arbitrary, Needless, Destructive, Dangerous.”

    It may even be that the arbitrariness of the eight-hour demand has come back to haunt us because today many people seem to believe that the eight hours a day and 40 hours a week standards are carved in stone.

    On the other hand, objectives such as “flexibility” and “work-family balance” are excruciatingly vague and bland. One might say that they are arbitrary in their non-specificity.

    What is to be done? Well, ideally what we need to move toward is the collective, co-operative and informed self-management of working time by those who do the work and give of their time. The models for such self-management are to be found in Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize-winning studies of what she refers to as “common pool resources.”

    But to move toward that informed collective self-management, we need to first engage in a conversation. nef’s “arbitrary” 21 Hours report was intended to spark that conversation, not to dictate its outcome. In the past, the lump-of-labor fallacy claim was used to shut down that conversation before it got started. We mustn’t let that happen ever again.

  13. Nigel Stanley

    Nigel Stanley
    Mar 12th 2010, 7:03 pm

    Some interesting points here and apologies if I don’t reply to all of them.

    I’m challenged as to why a trade unionist should believe that the lump of labour fallacy (lolf) is a fallacy.

    That’s simple. The concept that there is a fixed amount of labour to go round is used by the opponents of trade unionism to divide and rule.

    I suspect that there are some differences between the UK and US experience here, but the biggest users of the fallacy in the UK are those who tell us that every job for a migrant worker results in one less job for an indigenous UK worker. It is the stock in trade of the racist and far-right parties, and their apologists in our populist right-wing tabloid press.

    I certainly don’t read the lofl as an iron rule that says that work-sharing is never an appropriate response to economic downturn. UK unions have called for the same kind of state subsidies that are used in Germany to preserve skilled workforces during the recession, and have negotiated short –term working deals – even without government help – to preserve jobs.

    But that is to deal with a reduction in demand, not to share out a fixed amount of labour.

    Nor do UK unions back the idea that a shorter working week overall is a sensible response to unemployment. It may make sense in a particular sector or company, but not across the economy as a whole.

    Reading about John’s Timeday campaign I was struck that all of its demands have mostly been met – or even exceeded in the UK. It’s worth reproducing them here – so UK readers can see. Most of them flow from European Union rules – and most of them won by union action.

    1) Guaranteeing paid leave for all parents for the birth or adoption of a child. Today, only 40% of Americans are able to take advantage of the 12 weeks of unpaid leave provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.
    2) Guaranteeing at least one week of paid sick leave for all workers. Many Americans work while sick, lowering productivity and endangering other workers.
    3) Guaranteeing at least three weeks of paid annual vacation leave for all workers. Studies show that 28% of all female employees and 37% of women earning less than $40,000 a year receive no paid vacation at all.
    4) Placing a limit on the amount of compulsory overtime work that an employer can impose, with our goal being to give employees the right to accept or refuse overtime work.
    5) Making Election Day a holiday, with the understanding that Americans need time for civic and political participation.
    6) Making it easier for Americans to choose part-time work. Hourly wage parity and protection of promotions and pro-rated benefits for part-time workers

    But according to LOFL introducing these rights would result in a growing demand for labour. That didn’t happen.

    And our argument for less unpaid overtime that we make each year on work your proper hours day ( is not just that people are stressed out and overworked, but that many workplaces are badly organised and inefficient, and substitute long hours for good management.

    The argument about whether you should argue for a 21 hour working week has become a bit fractured.

    Of course any specific demand can be denounced as arbitrary, but in practice successful campaigns set achievable demands that can win the support and commitment of those that will benefit from them. That is where the 8 hour day campaign came from, and why it was partially successful. That is pragmatic trade unionism.

    21 hours fails that test.

    But it has always been my view that unions should do more to campaign more on working time – and I of course agree that shorter working time by men must be part of a fairer share of unpaid work between men and women.

    But such campaigns must start from where people are and why they work long hours – and they are rather different reasons for those who do paid overtime and those work extra hours without extra pay. The poor are not over-consuming, they work long hours because their children would go hungry or would not have any shoes to consume if they didn’t.

    Nor do I accept that working shorter hours has a simple correlation with decarbonisation of the economy. It depends on what job people have, and what they do when they are not at work.

    I think this is the same basic error as those who call for steady state economic growth make.

    The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions puts huge constraints on how we can achieve economic growth, but also creates new economic opportunities too.

    We can have an economy that is growing that is reducing its carbon emissions, and one that is shrinking that is increasing them (though this is less likely).

    I also know that in a democracy it is going to be very hard to get support for the kind of radical policies needed to reduce carbon emissions (though we are somewhat ahead of the US in Europe on this.)

    Adding a permanent recession as a condition will not help.

    And lastly I had a wry chuckle at Samuel Gompers being used for an environmental argument.

    He famously defined trade unionism in one word, “more”.

  14. Tom Walker
    Mar 12th 2010, 8:18 pm

    “And lastly I had a wry chuckle at Samuel Gompers being used for an environmental argument.

    “He famously defined trade unionism in one word, ‘more’”.

    This illustrates the pitfall of relying on attributed or abridged statements rather than what people actually said. What Gompers said was:

    “What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright.”

    So there were lesses as well as mores in Gompers’s desire. But, as Robert F. Kennedy pointed out, the jails, arsenals, vice and revenge all add to the GDP — to economic growth. Not to mention cleaning up pollution.

    As for the lump-of-labour fallacy. The “fallacy of the fallacy” has nothing to do with whether there is or isn’t a fixed amount of work to be done. It has everything to do with nonsensical BELIEFS falsely attributed to people. It’s like if I say “Nigel Stanley believes he is descended from Piltdown Man, but he’s wrong because there was no such creature.” It’s true that there no such creature as Piltdown Man.

    But the real issue is does Nigel have the erroneous belief attributed to him. If he doesn’t, the whole claim is a detour and a distraction. That’s what the lump of labour fallacy claim has always been about. Setting up a straw man argument and a red herring to distract from the case at hand.

    Furthermore, whether people do or don’t believe in a “fixed amount of work” is beside the point if governments and employers are USING immigration and trade policy strategically to undermine wage rates and the standard of living. Because they are both more vulnerable and may be accustomed to a lower standard of living, immigrants are often willing to work for lower wages that those that currently prevail. To attribute all anxiety about the effects of immigration and trade on employment and wages to racism and right-wing populism is to cede an awful lot of political territory to the opponents of social justice.

    But let’s not delude ourselves into imagining we can persuade each other with arguments. Nigel Stanley has stated what he believes is an economic principle. I have disputed the pedigree of his claim and he has understandably become defensive. At this point we’re clearly talking past each other rather than to each other. Perhaps we should proceed into mediation?

  15. Matthew Lockwood
    Mar 12th 2010, 9:22 pm

    Like a lot of other people, I wouldn’t be against a shorter working week, and there are lots of good reasons for having one.

    But whatever the history of the lump of labour fallacy, the argument (which is made in the NEF report) that cutting the hours of workers will reduce unemployment seems weak to me.

    France provides a natural experiment. The 35 hour week policy was introduced in 2000. Unemployment in France in the mid-1990s was just touching 12%. It started falling in 1997 and was around 9% in 2000. For the next 6 years it stayed around that level with no major move down. The conclusion that the law had little effect on employment is supported by quite careful studies such as:

    If I am misinformed about the lump of labour fallacy, at least I am in the good company of Paul Krugman ( If he thinks the fallacy is economically illiterate (he actually calls it “dangerous”) then that’s good enough for me.

  16. John de Graaf
    Mar 12th 2010, 10:04 pm

    It’s wonderful to see so literate and informed a discussion (with the exception of Tim Worstall, who seems to have no clue about limits–I might suggest a refresher course with Tim Jackson’s book, or Gus Speth’s THE BRIDGE AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD).

    Tom Walker is consistently cogent and Nigel Stanley, even where I disagree with him is erudite and nuanced–we could use more of such Labor leadership in the US. His argument regarding immigrants is an important concern, but the advocates of shorter hours are not immigrant bashers and make their case not on a fixed amount of work, but on the health, family, community, environmental and, during the recession, employment, benefits of reduced working time.

    Certainly Mr. Stanley is right that such reductions need to be combined with important increases in the minimum wage, and in the US, with all the things we advocate here (family leave, vacation time, etc.) which you already have in the UK. We should not get fixated on issues like LofL or whether 21 hours is too arbitrary, but rather focus on the fact that “the reduction of the working day” is still “the prerequesite” for freedom and for improvement in so many other areas of life.

    Thank you, Nigel Stanley for your recognition of its importance even if you do not fully share the views of NEF or Tom Walker or myself. Can we get you over the US?

    cheers, John de Graaf And PS Thanks to Tom Walker for the full Gompers quote–the labor leaders of that era were visionaries.

  17. Peggy Dobbons
    Mar 12th 2010, 11:31 pm

    How refreshing!! I’ve been waiting for well respected labor leaders and economists to revive human progress toward delivering reductions in labor time to increases in real free time, as in Time not bossed for a living. livelihood. What broke my heart in my years on the Central Labor Council in Birmingham Alabama, which met in the USWA hall, was hearing Steelworkers comiserate about members being laid off, the consequent drop in membership, and since they were the backbone of Labor and set the pay scale for all of is, including teachers, the consequent decline for all of us in the real standard of living and Freedom from worrying about our own job security; and then hearing them brag in the next breathe about pulling triple time for overtime. I wanted to ask and never did, “What are you going to do with that extra money? Buy another boat
    you don’t have free time to take out? Take your laid off brother out to eat?”. teachers; steady declining membership in USSW, the backbone of organized labor in our state, and,

  18. Tom Walker
    Mar 12th 2010, 11:42 pm

    Having deployed the opportunistic Gompers quote, I wouldn’t want to lose sight of the fact that he was indeed a virulent racist, as least with regard to Asian immigrants. That, in my view, reveals one of the dangers of ‘lumping’ shorter work time advocacy and anti-immigrant sentiment together as both motivated by an imaginary fallacy. We’re talking chalk and cheese, shinola and… er, something else. But if the only answer the left has to unemployment is “wait”, you can be assured the right will have a more appealing one, be it expelling immigrants or starting wars.

    How unsurprising to see the argument from authority from Matthew Lockwood. Reminds me of another authority, John Maynard Keynes who said, “when circumstances change I change my opinion.” Good Keynesian that he is, Professor Krugman has indeed changed his opinion in response to changed circumstances and now advocates work-sharing in the U.S. In his November 12, 2009 column Free to Lose Krugman wrote:

    Should America be trying anything along these lines? In a recent interview in The Washington Post, Lawrence Summers, the Obama administration’s highest-ranking economist, was dismissive: “It may be desirable to have a given amount of work shared among more people. But that’s not as desirable as expanding the total amount of work.” True. But we are not, in fact, expanding the total amount of work — and Congress doesn’t seem willing to spend enough on stimulus to change that unfortunate fact. So shouldn’t we be considering other measures, if only as a stopgap?

    Now, the usual objection to European-style employment policies is that they’re bad for long-run growth — that protecting jobs and encouraging work-sharing makes companies in expanding sectors less likely to hire and reduces the incentives for workers to move to more productive occupations. And in normal times there’s something to be said for American-style “free to lose” labor markets, in which employers can fire workers at will but also face few barriers to new hiring.

    But these aren’t normal times. Right now, workers who lose their jobs aren’t moving to the jobs of the future; they’re entering the ranks of the unemployed and staying there. Long-term unemployment is already at its highest levels since the 1930s, and it’s still on the rise.

    Does Krugman’s change of heart make Krugman an “economic illiterate’ or were his earlier words perhaps a bit intemperate?

    As for the difference-in-difference macroeconomic studies of employment effects, what laypeople often fail to understand is the results of macroeconomic analysis essentially reflect the assumptions made by the economists. I haven’t read this particular study (Chemin and Wasmer) but I have read other difference-in-difference studies and, trust me, they DO rely on the assumption that it is basically a matter of “dividing up a given number of hours of work.” The only thing this scholastic procedure ‘proves’ is that the amount of work is not fixed. But, hey, we knew that already. Other studies have found positive employment effects, but then they make other assumptions. Then there’s the question of publication bias and results cherry picking (do a whole bunch of studies until you find one that produces the results that you know are more publishable). That said, the study you cite MAY be a very well-designed one with valuable findings. It’s just that I’ve read too many of these things to ASSUME that at the outset.

  19. Tom Walker
    Mar 14th 2010, 6:17 pm

    Talk about ceding political ground to the racist right, the following letter to the editor (and its ensuing discussion by readers) showed up in my google news search for “jobs crisis”: Policing undocumented aliens will improve economy. The only thing more sickening than the letter writer’s racist diatribe is the nearly unanimous approval for his views from readers. To suggest that the writer, Mr. Lyons, is led to his views by a “fallacious belief in a fixed amount of work” is to hideously misrepresent the psychopathology of hate speech.

    The French economists, Pierre Cahuc and Andre Zylberberg took this mischievous line of unreasoning to it most extreme absurdity, insinuating an intellectual affinity between work-sharing and the Nazi genocide:

    The idea that any country’s economy, and a fortiori the world economy, contains a fixed number of jobs or hours of work that can be parceled out in different ways is false. When used to justify policies that reduce the length of the individual work week, it may lead to unintended consequences. It is, moreover, harmful when used to justify the withdrawal of mothers with children from the working population (thanks, for example, to parental education allowances). It can even be dangerous, as when it leads to the notion that getting rid of ‘superfluous’ manpower (the Jews of Nazi Germany in the past, immigrants from many countries in the present)…

    Slippery slopes, thin edges of wedges and all reductio ad absurdum aside, the fact remains that the only “belief in a fixed amount of work” at stake is a FALSELY ATTRIBUTED one. Mr. Stanley, along with Mr. Lockwood and MM. Cahuc and Zylberberg merely repeat a taunt for which there is no evidence.

    The nef’s case for moving to a more equitable and leisurely sharing of work is not based on an assumption that the amount of work is fixed. There is, I repeat, NO EVIDENCE for the taunt that it is. If Mr. Stanley, Mr. Lockwood (or any one else) can produce conclusive evidence that the assumption of a fixed amount of work is inherent in the case for work time reduction as a policy tool for job-creation or preservation, I will forthwith personally send them a cheque for $5,000 Canadian. My money is safe because they can’t do it.

    This is not to deny that it is possible to make bad, silly or incoherent arguments even for a worthwhile goal. But to reduce and equate all arguments to a stereotyped fallacy is itself the height of folly.

  20. Anyone want an easy C$ 5,000?
    Mar 14th 2010, 6:47 pm

    […] Must be someone out there willing to take that on? […]

  21. Tom Walker
    Mar 14th 2010, 7:52 pm

    RE: “anyone want and easy C$5000?”

    Thanks, Tim. Some background on the challenge. I first made it back in October 2004 on the MaxSpeak blog, which had a fairly large readership. There were no takers. In April 2008, I upped the anted to $10,000 on the condition that the defender of the lump taunt get their defense published in a high-ranking, peer-reviewed economics journal. I offered a lesser prize of $1000 for publication in a lower ranking journal. Again not a single taker. Not even an inquiry.

    Now, admittedly, some potential defenders of the lump taunt may have reservations about how the question of “conclusive evidence” is to be adjudicated and whether I can be trusted with regard to payment. No problem. If someone actually thinks they can meet the challenge, I’m sure we could work out a mutually agreed upon arbitrator and stakeholder. I can be contacted at lumpoflabor gmail com (with all the usual symbols in between the words).

    Once they’ve read my published refutation of the fallacy taunt, though, I doubt anyone will see it as an “easy C$5000.”

    One word of caution. The challenge is not (and never has been), “have ANY advocates of work time reduction EVER committed the fallacy.” Of course they have (but less often than you might think). Opponents of work time reduction also commit the fallacy repeatedly and with apparent impunity. On occasion, they unwittingly commit the fallacy in the very process of trying to justify their taunt! The challenge is about whether the fallacy is inherent or “inevitable” in the case for work time reduction.

  22. correction
    Mar 14th 2010, 8:11 pm

    “upped the ante”

  23. Matthew Lockwood
    Mar 14th 2010, 10:05 pm

    Although I’ve never met him, Tom Walker seems to feel he knows me well enough to make comments about my relationship with authority. Putting that aside, I would argue that Krugman’s position hasn’t changed.

    What Keynes is usually attributed as saying is: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” Krugman has changed his mind when the facts do (for example on the impact of globalisation on unemployment as evidence built up in the 1990s), but I don’t read the quote Tom Walker gives in the same way.

    It is clear from the context of this Krugman piece that he is talking about work-sharing for employees of companies in trouble as a temporary policy to get through a recession with fewer people completely laid off. This is different from a policy that attempts to bring about a permanent reduction in unemployment across the whole economy through shortening the working week, and I don’t see anything in the quote which would make me think that Krugman is in favour of that.

    Indeed, he scarcely seems in favour of work-sharing to tide over a recession, saying recently that he is turning to it as what he understands “perfectly well to be a third-best solution” because inflation and a conventional stimulus are not politically possible (

    As I said in my previous comment, I think there are lots of interesting reasons to promote shorter working weeks (think how much more time we could spending the blogosphere –mmm… appealing idea (?)), but cutting unemployment is not one of them.

  24. Peggy Dobbons
    Mar 14th 2010, 10:24 pm

    What is the relation between increasing productivity and reducing labor costs? Between profit margins and RIFs? I should add another artist who spent more years with Yale economists than I once presented me a lump of steel engraved with guess what word?

  25. Tom Walker
    Mar 15th 2010, 12:15 am

    Although I’ve never met him…

    Let’s stop the taunts and the name calling for a just a moment here to recall that the issue is NOT whether or not there is a “fixed amount of work,” as the lump-of-labor fallacy has it but whether or not work-time reduction is a feasible response to either 1. current high levels of unemployment due to the recession or, 2. going forward, to a new economic paradigm in which GDP growth no longer figures as an imperative for maintaining social stability.

    The fallacy taunt would rule out the effectiveness of a reduction of working time for either purpose. It is an “if-and-only-if” proposition. “If it was true that there is a fixed amount of work to be done, work-sharing could be effective. But since it’s not true, it can’t be.” You’re not allowed to pick and choose between “long term fallacy but short term non-fallacy.”

    But, while we’re on the subject of argument from authority, I would like to delve a bit further into Mr. Keynes’s views of the long and short of working less. First, in a 1945 letter to T.S. Eliot, Keynes wrote,

    The full employment policy by means of investment is only one particular application of an intellectual theorem. You can produce the result just as well by consuming more or working less. Personally I regard the investment policy as first aid. In U.S. it almost certainly will not do the trick. Less work is the ultimate solution.”

    A more formal exposition of Keynes’s view can be found in his 1943 Treasury Dept. memorandum on “The Long Term Problem of Full Employment”, in which he wrote, in part (please follow the link for context):

    10. As the third phase comes into sight; the problem stressed by Sir H. Henderson begins to be pressing. It becomes necessary to encourage wise consumption and discourage saving,-and to absorb some part of the unwanted surplus by increased leisure, more holidays (which are a wonderfully good way of getting rid of money) and shorter hours.

    Lest anyone suspect I’m cherry-picking Keynes quotes just to score debate points, I refer you to Keynes’s biographer, Robert Skidelsky and especially to a 1998 article he wrote titled “Keynes and Employment Policy in the Second World War.”

    Although I agree with Keynes, I wouldn’t want to leave the impression of holding him up as the ultimate authority on the matter. That honour I would readily concede to a student of Alfred Marshall’s who was highly regarded in his day but whose contribution is largely neglected these days, Sydney J. Chapman. Chapman’s analysis was cited extensively and approvingly by A.C. Pigou, J.R. Hicks and Lionel Robbins and ultimately became the basis for John Maurice Clark’s analysis of social overhead costs.

    For those more concerned with promoting economic literacy than with hurling glib taunts of “economic illiteracy,” here is the abstract of a paper I presented at a conference in Amsterdam few years ago, “Missing: The Strange Disappearance of S. J. Chapman’s Theory of the Hours of Labour”

    Sidney Chapman’s theory of the hours of labour, published in 1909 in The Economic Journal, was acknowledged as authoritative by the leading economists of the day. It provided important insights into the prospects for market rationality with respect to work time arrangements and hinted at a profound immanent critique of economists’ excessive concern with external wealth. Chapman’s theory was consigned to obscurity by mathematical analyses that reverted heedlessly to outdated and naïve assumptions about the connection between hours and output. The centenary of the theory’s publication offers an occasion to reconsider what has been lost by economists’ neglect of Chapman’s theory.

    Now, the case for how reducing working time cuts unemployment is not a simple one. It is not a matter of “dividing up a fixed amount of work.” It has to do with first, recognizing the market failure (described by Chapman and Pigou) with regard to the maldistribution of employment, resulting in both overwork and unemployment, and second with accounting for that maldistribution as a social overhead cost (Clark) that firms simply shed and shift to individual or society as a whole as an “externality.” “If all industry were integrated and owned by workers, what would be the relation of constant to variable expense?” Clark asked, “it would be clear to worker-owners that the real cost of labor could not be materially reduced by unemployment.”

  26. continued…
    Mar 15th 2010, 12:36 am

    That is to say, in Clark’s view, unemployment exists because employers treat labour as a variable cost, which can readily be reduced through layoffs. But the cost of maintaining the worker in good stead is not eliminated with the issuing of a pink slip. It is merely shifted to the individual or to society as a whole. Work time reduction internalizes those overhead costs of labor. How well it succeeds in doing so depends on policy design and here is where economists have shamefully dropped the ball. Instead of studying how to best implement what is essentially a “Pigouvian tax” on excess hours of work, they have waved away the whole topic with glib taunts about lumps of labour.

  27. Tim Worstall
    Mar 15th 2010, 8:42 am

    Leave aside for a moment whether anyone has committed the lump of labour fallacy and even whether it is one.

    Look to the real mistake that the nef have made. It’s in their analysis of working hours itself. And yes, Keynes was wrong here too (hey, even Homer nods and all that).

    We must distinguish between paid working hours in the market and unpaid working hours in household production. OK, nef do at least nod in this direction.

    But the trend over the past century or so has been entirely the opposite of what nef are suggesting should happen. As wealth increases of course we have been taking some of that extra wealth in the form of more leisure. But which for of production, household or market, is it that we have been gaining that extra leisure from?

    All of the time use surveys show that, for women market working hours have been rising (for the bovious reasons of emancipation etc). For men paid working hours have been declining. But for both sexes unpaid hours in household production have been falling strongly.

    So it would appear that we prefer to do paid working hours in order to purchase those things (vacuums, wahing machines, ready meals, clothes rather than home seamstressing, whatever) which reduce household production. This seems logical as the productivity of labour is higher the more division and specialisation of labour we have. By working and purchasing such goods and services rather than by doing them ourselves we get more goods and services for a certain number of working hours. (BTW, this isn’t some right wing invention. This is an implication of the Stiglitz/Sen report for Sarkozy on alternatives to GDP as a measure of wellbeing.)

    Now this effect is really very strong. From the Luxembourg Income Study we get the result, just as an example, that the average American woman does fewer total working hours than her German equivalent. More market hours, yes, but fewer in home production.

    And this is where the nef goes wrong. The entire thrust of their argument is that we would be better off doing fewer market hours and more in household production. To ridicule it, we are better off spending four hours making jam than we are working two hours for pay to purchase the same amount of jam.

    Unless you put a very high value on the social aspects or risking pouring boiling sugar over the kiddies this just isn’t true.

    And from what people have actually been doing in the past century this isn’t true, most people simply don’t place that high a value on such social activities. We can see this in what they have been doing. They’ve been taking more leisure as a result of increasing wealth, yes. But they’ve been doing that by preferentially reducing household production hours rather than market working hours.

    The suggestion that we should reduce market hours in favour of home production hours thus fails. Not because anyone’s violated some principle of economics or because there’s a fallacy built into the logic.

    But simply because when we observe what several billion human beings have been doing over a century it turns out that this isn’t they way that those billions would like to organise their lives.

    It’s humanity that’s wrong, d’ye see?

  28. Tom Walker
    Mar 15th 2010, 10:44 am

    There’s a small grain of truth in what you say, Tim. But you put way too many eggs in a very fragile basket. As I’ve pointed out time and again, the time use studies you rely upon so heavily are fraught with methodological flaws. Counting the idle time of unemployed people as leisure is one of them. A biggee. That doesn’t mean the information is entirely worthless, but it is an extremely slender empirical foundation for you to build such a magnificent edifice on.

    As someone who grew up in the “three glorious decades” it would seem to me that an awful lot of the domestic improvements happened during or soon after the largest declines in industrial working time.

    I can certainly see the argument that household appliances enable a greater paid workforce participation by women. Point taken. But if you look at the distribution of hours, particularly among men, you’ll see that high income earners work more hours than they did say in the 1970s and low income earners’ declines in hours can entirely be explained by greater precariousness of employment. Stop calling unemployment “leisure”!

    Please have a look at Jared Bernstein and Karen Kornbluh’s study showing that middle and lower income families barely maintained their income levels by increasing household hours of work. In fact, low income families worked more hours AND had less income over the period studied. Just how are those families “buying” more leisure from household production with lower incomes?

    I post the title and time period studied of the Bernstein and Kornbluh piece later. I don’t have time to look it up right at the moment.