The United Auto Workers (UAW) negotiations have not drawn to a close, despite an extended wait for the Big 3 to accept the clearly stated UAW demands. This has led to the union’s first simultaneous strike against all three companies, with picket lines at a Ford plant in Michigan, a Stellantis plant in Toledo, and a General Motors plant in Missouri, according to The Washington Post. But what are the UAW’s demands? Including wage hikes, retiree pay hikes, and other conditions, the UAW demand for a 4-day workweek has drawn some attention.
The 4-day concept is not a new idea. The 1900s saw the shift from a 6-day work week to the 5-day format now common today, thanks in large part to labor organizations that fought for better working conditions. With a growing focus on mental well-being and work-life balance, it seems a good time as any to reassess our current work systems objectively and shift to a 4-hour work week that does not have to compromise on productivity. However, the automotive industry may not be best placed to meet the UAW demands and lead the change.
Benefits of a 4-Day Workweek
Early in 2023, the advocacy group 4 Day Week Global announced the results of its biggest pilot program yet, enlisting around 3,000 employees to test out the 4-day workweek with no loss of pay. Unsurprisingly, 91 percent of the participating organizations committed to continuing the 4-day system. The organizations saw revenue rise by 35% in comparison to similar periods in the previous years and absenteeism fell as well. In 2019, Microsoft Japan conducted a “Work-Life Choice” challenge and saw productivity rise by 40 percent. While critics state that the 4-day workweek is a demand made by those unwilling to work, the reduced work hours are believed to offer a long list of benefits.
Reduced work hours free individuals up to do more with their time. For some, family time is on priority. For others, their physical health gets more attention. Individuals working a 4-day week report reduced stress levels and an improved resistance to work stress. Buffer, an organization that has offered a 4-day workweek since 2020, conducted a survey of its employees and found that 73.1 percent of employees felt more energized through this system with 61.5 percent stating it was now easier to find a work-life balance. Recruitment consultancy company MRL also conducted a study with its own team and 87 percent reported their mental health was better balanced.
Additional benefits include reduced travel and child care expenses, more time for volunteer work and other social obligations, and improved moods when returning to work.
Challenges of Implementing a 4-Day Workweek
When Wellcome Trust tried to plan a 4-day work week for its head office staff, it had to give up after finding it “too operationally complex to implement”. Apart from how it could affect revenue, this implementation component appears to be one of the biggest struggles with a 4-day work week. Reorganizing workloads and ensuring the same amount of work is accomplished is a challenge. If employees come back to work with overwhelming workloads waiting for them on Monday, then the purpose of the long weekend is largely defeated.
Especially for client-facing roles and customer service jobs, having the staff unavailable is a move companies do not want to make. In an interview for Fast Company, Alter Agents CEO Rebecca Brooks reported, “It became hard for people to keep up with what had happened when they were out. We started to notice little things slipping through the cracks that didn’t hold up to our standards.” She stated the difficulty in ensuring that someone was always available for their clients, working around a schedule where their days off did not overlap. SEJ reported its own struggles of trying to figure out arrangements for employees who worked on a part-time, contractual, or hourly basis as each came with its own set of circumstances. A 4-day work week involves significant planning and negotiations—it takes more work than declaring an additional holiday.
UAW’s Arguments for a 4-Day Workweek
What the UAW is demanding is not something that arises out of a sudden desire for more free time or a causal emulation of other industries. “Our members are working 60, 70, even 80 hours a week just to make ends meet. That’s not a living. That’s barely surviving, and it needs to stop.” Shawn Fain stated in a Facebook Live. Automotive workers are chronically overworked and frequently work overtime, often for 7 days a week. Talking to NPR, Jerry Coleman, a worker at Stellantis, reported the same, stating he had 10-hour work days, sometimes working the whole week around.
The UAW demands are clear in their terms, “a four-day workweek, working 32 hours for 40 hours of pay.” This is by no means an industry standard and many doubt whether the automotive companies will enter into negotiations with UAW at all on this condition. However, the UAW is firm in its stance that its workers deserve better work compensation and a life outside of their work for their families. With the strenuous work conditions for prolonged periods, the UAW workers are regularly exhausted, not even allowed the 40-hour workweeks that other industries enjoy.
Automakers’ Responses to the 4-Day Workweek UAW Demand
The Big Three are clearly reluctant to accept the UAW demands and have delayed negotiations or only provided alternatives that fall short of the UAW expectations. The highly competitive industry and its constantly changing nature make it difficult for companies to risk a dip in productivity. With 40-hour pay for a 30-hour work week, these companies expect a significant fall in how much they are able to produce. Considering cheaper labor alternatives outside the country and the growing shift towards automation, workers might find themselves soon replaced if these companies begin to find a more affordable alternative.
The Big 3 are largely hesitant to entertain UAW negotiations right now with their attention focused on the EV industry instead, focused on maintaining a competitive edge while they can. Any losses for them, financial or otherwise, could mean a win for companies like Tesla that are leading the shift to electric. The reorganization of resources, hiring of new workers to make up for the production gaps, and planning the new workweek would require big commitments from the automotive giants, and making that move right now could be costly.
To summarise it all, the UAW demands are a fair expectation of where the automotive industry should be headed, in order to ensure that all workers are offered decent living conditions and wages that match the work that is put in. Better mental health, productivity, and work-life balance are all benefits that the 4-day work week will be able to offer and all companies should begin the shift towards it. However, looking at the circumstances of the industry and the precarious position the Big 3 are in, it seems highly unlikely that the companies will open up to UAW negotiations right now, even if they agree to meet the other union demands.