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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

UAW is in talks with automakers. Among its demands: a 4-day workweek

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Four days of work for five days of pay. That's one of the demands made by the United Auto Workers in ongoing labor talks in Detroit. And it's something that some employers are already trying out. NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: The head of the Auto Workers union, Shawn Fain, has been emphatic auto workers need a higher quality of life.

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SHAWN FAIN: We need to get back fighting for a vision of society in which everyone earns family sustaining wages and everyone has enough free time to enjoy their lives and see their kids grow up and their parents grow old.

HSU: His vision? A 32-hour workweek for 40 hours of pay, plus overtime.

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FAIN: 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.

HSU: He's talking about people like Jerry Coleman (ph), who works in the paint department at the Stellantis Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio.

JERRY COLEMAN: I signed up for six days, but they force us to work seven days.

HSU: Seven days a week and...

COLEMAN: Ten hours a day.

HSU: Ten hours a day. Coleman has been working this kind of schedule for much of the past five years as a temp employee. It's meant missing out on so much of his daughters' lives.

COLEMAN: I missed my daughter's graduation from kindergarten.

HSU: And his older daughter, she hasn't been able to do after school sports because he hasn't been around to take her. This year, they decided she should go live with her mother.

COLEMAN: Because it's not fair to her that she can't do this because I'm constantly stuck at work.

HSU: Coleman says it's not the life he wants, but he needs the money. He makes just under $20 an hour, plus overtime. He's been waiting, hoping, to be made a permanent employee at Stellantis.

COLEMAN: What can I do? It's either be with my kid or lose my job.

HSU: Now, for automakers, whose plants run around the clock, shortening the regular workweek would be expensive and logistically challenging. It could make them uncompetitive. But it has been proposed before by the UAW. Shawn Fain says he read about it in old copies of Solidarity, the union's magazine, dating back to the 1930s and '40s.

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FAIN: Our leaders back then we're talking about a 35- and a 32-hour workweek.

HSU: Sociologist Jonathan Cutler of Wesleyan wrote a book about that push.

JONATHAN CUTLER: Organized labor considered its mission to be shorter hours and higher wages.

HSU: Factory workers once put in a hundred or more hours a week. Unions fought and fought. And in 1940, the 40-hour workweek we know today became law.

CUTLER: So the idea was, almost as soon as the 40-hour workweek was achieved, everyone just moved on to the next obvious target, which is 30. That's the way history is going to work.

HSU: Except it didn't. While the idea gained traction among the rank and file, ultimately, UAW's leadership stepped away from it. It became the thing that fell to the side in dealmaking. And now? Well, Cutler says Fain's timing couldn't be better.

CUTLER: Now's the time to introduce demands like this, when there's still some leverage.

HSU: And while there's momentum elsewhere. In recent years, dozens of companies around the world have tried out a four-day week with five days' pay, including Microsoft in Japan. Workers were not only happier, they were also more productive. Now, most of the trials have involved smaller companies with office workers, not factory workers. Boston College sociologist Wen Fan is a lead researcher on those trials.

WEN FAN: We don't have many manufacturing organizations in the trial, as you can imagine.

HSU: But there are a few - a brewery in the U.K., a luxury RV maker in the U.S. Fan says avoiding burnout is especially important for line workers whose jobs are physically taxing. An extra day off...

FAN: Gives people the necessary time and space to recover and refresh.

HSU: Now, nobody I talked to expects the automakers to jump on this bandwagon, definitely not Jerry Coleman, who had this to say about the four-day workweek.

COLEMAN: You know, I would love to have that, but I don't think the company is going to go for that because they too greedy.

HSU: But Shawn Fain doesn't appear to be backing off yet. Here he was last weekend quoting Frederick Douglass at a Labor Day rally.

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FAIN: Power concedes nothing without a demand.

HSU: And then he turned to another rallying cry, vowing if we don't get our share of social and economic justice, come September 14, we're going to take action to get it.

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FAIN: By any means necessary.

(CHEERING)

HSU: Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.