Even as President Biden signed legislation imposing a contract without paid sick leave on 115,000 rail workers, he made it clear that the fight for paid leave — not just for rail workers but for everyone — wasn’t over. As he often reminds us, America is one of the few nations in the world that doesn’t have paid leave for its workers.
But the problem goes beyond sick leave, as the rail strike last year made clear: Americans face an epidemic of long-hour, family-hostile jobs. We are overworked and over-controlled. Workers lack such basic economic freedoms as the right to say no to overtime and the right to time off to care for themselves and those they love. We need fair time legislation that restores these rights to all Americans.
Achieving such a breakthrough is not an impossible dream. But it can only happen if we build a fair time movement that links the long fight of the women’s movement to value family work with the labor movement’s equally long fight for shorter hours and more control over work time.
I come from three generations of railroaders who risked their lives making sure goods and people got where they needed to go. And they were proud of it. My dad started railroading in the 1930s, sorting letters in the train’s special mail car as it whizzed between small towns in Georgia. Then he “fired” on the steam locomotive, often shoveling fuel into the coal box next to his engineer father. Finally, he moved into the driver’s seat himself. He loved his job, and he made enough money to buy a small house in downtown Atlanta.
But he also had plenty of control over when and how much he worked, thanks to something he called the “extra board,” a system of work distribution negotiated between the unions and the railroad companies. On the extra board, he could remove his name (or plug) from the board when he didn’t want to be called for a job and return it when he did. For him, it was glorious. He read as much as he wanted, studied for the bar exam and passed, and kept active in his union, his church, and his Masonic Lodge. And, of course, he could spend time with me. When I was growing up in the 1950s, it was often my Dad who greeted me after school. I knew he’d be there, not my grandmother, because he blew the train whistle three times as he drove past Peachtree Station near my Atlanta elementary school.
How different is the world of the railroader now. The money may still be “good” (though it’s nothing like what the billionaire rail CEOs rake in). But what difference does it make if your job treats you as less than human, as someone whose health and life apart from work has no value?
The situation of railroaders today is unsustainable. The industry’s current lean-and-mean business model generates record profits for the few, but it is creating record heartache for the many.
A diminished workforce is now chained to 60-hour weeks and routinely penalized for taking time off for family or medical emergencies. This system endangers the safety and health of the exhausted men and women charged with keeping our rail deliveries moving. It disrupts family life, thwarts civic participation, and makes a mockery of our commitment to democracy and shared decision-making.
Sadly, while the railroad industry may be the current poster boy for the corporate strategy of job degradation, it is only one of many. Americans now spend more annual hours in paid work than in almost any other industrialized nation, including Japan, famous for its culture of overwork. And with the rise of just-in-time scheduling and the continuing shift of decision-making upward, worker control over time has plummeted.
We can fix this. We have a long history of fair time movements in the US to build on.
Ending long hours was the top demand of American workers in the nineteenth century. As the labor movement argued then, shorter hours increased productivity, encouraged technological investment, and reduced worker illness and job injury. Limiting the supply of work time increased its value, and employers could afford to pay workers more. Shorter hours also meant a fairer distribution of work. It tackled the problem of too much work as well as too little. As AFL president Sam Gompers put it in 1887, “So long as there is one man who seeks employment and cannot obtain it, the hours of labor are too long.”
The political and social case for shorter hours was just as important as the economic. Without time for education, reflection, and civic engagement, American workers could not participate fully in the American experiment in representative democracy. Shorter hours, the labor movement argued, would enable workers to be better citizens, better family members, and better people.
This first great movement for shorter hours brought us the 8-hour day. In 1916, faced with the threat of a national walkout of 400,000 rail unionists, President
Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for legislation instituting the 8-hour day on the railroads. Soon after, he signed the Adamson Act, the first 8-hour federal law for nongovernmental employees. Although ten, and even twelve, hours a day remained the norm in many unorganized workplaces into the 1930s, the 8-hour standard spread as unions gained power.
The right to a voice in workplace governance, including setting fair work schedules and gaining time off, were at the heart of labor’s revival in the 1930s and 1940s. With close to a third of the nonagricultural workforce organized by the 1950s, unions wrested paid vacations, holidays, sick leave, and pensions from America’s major employers. In addition to shorter workweeks, they won a shorter work year and a shorter work life. Unions also institutionalized job-sharing, job registries, union hiring halls, and other mechanisms to distribute work more fairly and give workers more say over when and how much they worked.
Reform-minded women from all classes led the second great time movement. These activists, a group I call “full rights feminists,” fought for the right to family time as well as the right to a good job. That meant, among other things, jobs that paid enough to support a family, more control over where and when they worked, and state support for household and care labor. By the 1920s, they won laws in the majority of states that regulated the hours of women and children and granted state aid to single mothers. In 1938, against great odds, they pushed through the Fair Labor Standards Act, the first federal law setting wage floors and hour ceilings for men, women, and children. In 1963, John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, an initiative championed by a new generation of full rights feminists, called for federal action to establish paid maternity leave, limits on involuntary overtime, better part-time jobs, affordable child care, and state compensation for unpaid caregiving.
Today, the struggle for fair time is gaining ground. As workers organize, they are insisting on their right to participate in deciding the rules under which they work. They are rejecting rigid, inflexible scheduling and demanding an end to the mal-distribution of work, with forced overtime for some and too few hours for others. They increasingly have the support of the public too, with Gallup reporting a whopping 71% of Americans sympathetic to unions. Paid family and medical leave laws now exist in eleven states, and even more states offer paid sick leave. Campaigns for “fair workweek” and “fair scheduling” laws have cropped up around the country and show no sign of waning. The time movements of the past were right: fair time regimes are essential if individuals, families, and democratic societies are to flourish.
It’s crucial to strengthen these efforts. We need an inclusive, transformative time movement – one that is powerful and far-seeing enough to insist that Congress pass not just sick leave but fair time legislation for all workers. But we’re only going to get it when we come together as one movement.
Dorothy Sue Cobble
Dorothy Sue Cobble is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Labor Studies and History at Rutgers University. Her most recent book is For the Many: American Feminists and theGlobal Fight for Democratic Equality (Princeton, 2021).