The United Auto Workers (UAW) began a historic strike last week against the “Big Three” US carmakers—Ford Motor Co., General Motors, and Stellantis—with a list of demands that included a four-day work week. It marks a significant push for the idea, which has become a reality for some office workers but has yet to make it to the assembly line.
Now auto workers want in. Nearly 13,000 members of the UAW walked out at three plants across the three Detroit brands on Sept. 15. In addition to demanding increases and better benefits, auto workers want a 32-hour work week with the same pay as a 40-hour week. The union’s leadership has said the shift is necessary to improve workers’ quality of life.
“Our members are working 60, 70, even 80 hours a week just to make ends meet. That’s not living. It’s barely surviving and it needs to stop,” said UAW president Shawn Fain on a Facebook livestream in August.
Other unions have also endorsed the idea. The AFL-CIO, the largest trade union federation in the US, recommended bargaining for a four-day work week in 2019 as a means of “strengthening the labor movement.”
Dozens of companies in the US have adopted a four-day work week, according to the job search site 4 Day Week. Kickstarter made the shift in 2022, encouraged by evidence that it increases employee productivity and improves retention—two outcomes that the crowdfunding platform has found to hold true. Software company Basecamp has a 32-hour work week during the summer, from May to September. Even tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon have trialed a four-day schedule. Although tech companies have been making the shift, the four-day work week is still broadly considered to be a somewhat radical change.
The UAW strike could be a turning point in the adoption of the four-day work week. The union’s precedent-setting demand will have “massive reverberations” whether or not it finds success, Cathy Creighton, director of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab, told MarketWatch.
Auto workers, who in the US have a history of trailblazing new labor standards, are striking while the iron is hot. In a post-covid world, attitudes toward work-life balance have changed, the labor market is tight, and companies are eager to seek new ways to attract and retain workers. Less time on the job may just be the ticket—and according to recent surveys, Americans are in favor.
87%: Employed adults who said they would be “somewhat or very interested” in a four-day work week, according to a 2023 survey from Morning Consult. (The survey defined a four-day work week as “working four days per week for 10+ hours per day”)
93%: Millennials who were interested in a shorter work week, representing the cohort most keen on the idea
71%: Baby boomers who said they were interested, representing the cohort who were least keen
75%: Americans interested in a four-day work week, according to a 2023 survey from Talent.com
43%: Share who believe it’s a logical progression after the adoption of hybrid work, according to the same survey
Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford was one of the earliest adopters of the five-day, 40-hour work week that has become a standard in workplaces around the globe. In September 1926, Ford instituted five-day work weeks at his car plants, effectively creating the modern concept of “the weekend.” Before then, working six days a week was the norm.
Ford himself wrote in a company newsletter at the time: “Just as the eight-hour day opened our way to prosperity in America, so the five-day workweek will open our way to still greater prosperity... It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either lost time or a class privilege.”
Now, nearly 100 years later, it looks like workers in the very industry where Ford imposed the 40-hour schedule could have the power to take back more of their time.