Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what you will!

In all the hollering and shouting and brouhaha over public service pay and conditions one point was (strangely) seldom if ever made. And that point is: why, instead of insisting the public sector should step up, get busy, and be more like the private, don't we insist that the private become more like the public? Here's a why: because, blinded with the religious fervour that is neoliberalism and its glancing relationship with fact, our only imperative is to grow the economy and get Ireland working and get Ireland working hard in order to grow the economy so we can...um...so we can...oh yeah, inflate another credit bubble and bring on another crash and make sure that the status quo bequeathed to us by the high-priests and druids of the Order of the Neoliberals never, ever changes. Harry Browne says the unsayable, below, out loud.

Now that my union, the Teachers Union of Ireland, has signed up for the Croke Park Agreement, pretty soon I’m going to have to teach more hours. As it stands my maximum weekly 'contact hours' with my journalism students during term-time at DIT are ostensibly 16, which includes lectures and workshops and some allowance for supervision. It probably doesn’t sound like a lot for a full-time job, unless you’re a university lecturer, in which case you feel sorry for me, until I note that my contract gives me 10 weeks off, out of sight and out of mind, every summer.

Under the latest plans this workload is probably going to get about 20 per cent more demanding.

So yes, I know, your heart bleeds. When I tell you my take-home pay has dropped about a quarter from its 2008 high (which was pretty damn high), there’s every chance you’ll have a much more horrible story to tell. And it’s very likely your job is probably not as permanent, pensionable and downright pleasant as my own, which, when it doesn’t involve teaching interesting subjects to bright-eyed students, may entail intriguing research and/or stimulating professional practice. Or not, as the case may be.

I could tell you the work is challenging, pressurised, and a couple of times a year seemingly endless, even sleepless. I could tell you how much some of us worry these days about the alleged permanence of jobs in the public sector. But, unless you’re Bono, I couldn’t tell you my work is harder than yours, or that I have done anything to deserve such a good, rewarding job that you haven’t, or couldn’t have, done yourself. 

On the other hand, my occupation of this job does not constitute a moral failing. Nor does the existence of a quasi-secure public service provide the most searing indictment of our unequal society -- not while Dermot Desmond, Denis O’Brien, Tony O’Reilly et al continue to stalk the land just long enough to dominate our public life, but not long enough to pay tax here.

I laboured in the private sector long enough -- in a warehouse, in a workers co-op, in the black economy, in Microsoft, in the Irish Times -- to know that the word ‘work’ contains multitudes, that it conceals the grafters and the chancers; the high-fliers and the sudden fallers; the time-servers and the casuals whose time never gets added up at all; those who 'contribute to the bottom line' and those who provide the business with a plausible face. Plus a whole world of bosses who would probably be decent human beings if they weren’t such total pricks. And I remember the ‘presenteeism’ of people whose 60-hour weeks contained perhaps six hours of real work, whatever that is.

What I don’t remember is something categorically different from work in the public sector, where all of the above can also be found. It’s true, though, that private-sector work has got, in the neoliberal era, more time-consuming, less unionised, and often worse-paid, while public-sector work mostly hasn’t, at least to anything like the same extent. The answer to the gap, such as it is, is not of course to ‘lower’ public servants to the level of the private sector, but to raise private-sector working conditions to those of the public sector, and hopefully beyond.

Well, a fella can dream, right?

It's true, just a few short years ago both my pay and conditions would have been sneered at by some private-sector Tigers; jobs like mine were regarded as time-serving drudgery by those enjoying this country's glorious adventure in bubble-nomics. But that time is past. In a slightly sane society I would earn half as much as a bin-man (and most bankers and economists would earn half as much as me). In a truly sane society, everyone who is able-bodied would work on a bin-truck, or equivalent, for six hours a week (make it 12 for bankers and economists).Seriously, as long as society and the economy appear to be collapsing around us, and we’re dreaming impossible dreams, why don’t we cut to the chase and picture a truly egalitarian work-system, where not only would it be economically straightforward to get the college degrees that qualify you for my job, but once you got them you wouldn’t be exempt from the dirty and callous-forming work that keeps social life ticking over. 

Even better, we could get rid of all the ‘work’, public and private, that serves no useful social purpose, from bond-trader to welfare-fraud investigator.The attack on public service is of course part of our own local shock doctrine: they used the boom to enrich themselves and reshape society and the economy in their favour, and now they want to use the crisis to do the same thing. That's where public-service 'restructuring' comes in, convincing us that we need 'leaner' public services, harder work, longer hours, poorer pensions, more 'flexibility', weaker unions -- ideas that will re-infect the private sector too and set the bosses up nicely for their next round of exploitation.

But our response should go beyond resistance, all the way to a different vision. Lest we forget, the historic ambition of the labour movement was not simply for better-paid work, or even safer or less alienating work: it was for less work. 'Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what you will!' If you’re lucky enough to do work that’s so fulfilling that 'what you will' is more of it, then please, carry on, mazel tov. But if you’re unlucky enough to be unemployed, then the vision of a social wage combined with the sharing of existing jobs and future job-suites probably makes a whole lot of sense. It’s extraordinary to think that leftists not so long ago seriously talked of the next step after the widespread achievement of the eight-hour day: the 1,000-hour year, an answer both to the strains of paid work and the spectres of unemployment and under-employment. For the arithmetically challenged: you’d get to 1,000 hours by working 20-hour weeks for the year, or 40-hour weeks for six months. 

For the last half-century whole cities in the advanced Western economies have been remade by the ambition of the rich to replace places of productive labour with places for speculative investment. Think, without looking too far from home, of docklands turned into financial-services centres and luxury apartments and offices. The neoliberal elite have no real respect for the sort of work that most people in the world still do: it’s just another cost to be located as cheaply as possible. For a recent index of the reality of our society’s ‘work ethic’, just look at the right royal welcome granted by Irish state and media alike to the pampered prince of a favoured tax haven for Irish billionaires. 

So screw them. We don’t have to keep working every hour God gave just because they say so. Let’s work fewer hours, far fewer, and share the load around. Ask yourself: is your work so goddamn hot that the world wouldn’t benefit from you doing less of it?  As Nietzsche wrote (quoted in Bob Fitch’s fine book, The Assassination of New York): 'We must not ask the money-making banker the reason for his restless activity, it is foolish. The active roll as the stone rolls, according to the stupidity of mechanics.' Personally, I don’t want to be as stupid as a stone, much less a banker.

Image top via smemon87 on Flickr.