Bargaining the four-day workweek

Old issue is recycled; results are mixed
By Lorna Harris
||Last Updated: 09/23/2008

Robert Hurlburt, Nova Scotia’s Energy Minister, ruffled some feathers recently when he suggested that his department is considering allowing government employees to work 10-hour shifts Monday through Thursday. The 10-hour, four-day workweek was introduced recently as a pilot project in the state of Utah where 17,000 of the state’s 24,000 employees will work 10 hours a day from Monday to Thursday and have Friday off. Officials there hope to save the taxpayers money by saving on energy costs.

Similarly, Hurlburt reasoned that a similar policy in his province could cut energy costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions because government offices would close, thereby reducing heating and air conditioning costs. Also, workers would not have to drive to their jobs five days a week.

In Hamilton, Ontario, city councillor Sam Merulla also wants city staff to consider the feasibility of going to a four-day workweek to save energy costs.

But is the idea workable?

According to Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, it’s “something easier said than done.” She has reservations about how the move to 10-hour workdays would affect employees’ lifestyles. In addition, closing government offices for three out of seven days a week might make it harder to receive services — the main reason that the City of Vancouver deep-sixed its 23-year-old policy in 1999. Then there is the added wrinkle that if the government leases space in a building with other business which stay open, the potential savings on heating and air conditioning would be lost.

Nevertheless, the idea persists, and the four-day workweek has been on the agenda of several union negotiations with mixed results. In 2007, the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 793, went on strike over a management proposal for, among other things, a 10-hour, four-day workweek. As noted in the Daily Commercial News and Construction Record, union officials saw the longer work hours as posing a possible safety issue. Union business manager Mike Gallagher was quoted as saying, “Operating heavy machinery leaves zero room for error.” The Crane Assn. of Ontario argued that the arrangement would be done on a job-by-job basis with the agreement of all the parties.

The agreement the United Steelworkers, Local 2859, reached in June with Babcock & Wilcox in Cambridge, Ontario provides for a new 10-hour, four-day Monday to Thursday workweek. Although higher gas prices might have been a factor in the decision, the main reason, according to a company spokesperson quoted in the Waterloo Record, was to provide better work-life balance for the 341 workers. Weekend shifts at the busy company, which manufactures steam generation products, will be lengthened from two to three.

In the new contract at le Journal de Quebec, ratified in early July after a record-breaking 438-day work stoppage, a 37.5 hour workweek will be spread over four days for all save the classified ad employees. The union’s concern that the 280 employees would lose pay under the new plan was mitigated by an agreement to end outsourcing and a guaranteed minimum number of journalists covering Quebec City news.

For the idea to work, proper planning is key. Julie White and Diane Goulet reported on Bell Canada’s year-long experience in 1994 with a four-day workweek for its 12,000 technicians. In an article in Options Politiques, they noted proper planning and preparation, especially for front-line managers who had to schedule service calls, might have prevented its collapse. As it was, the scheme was introduced for the 12,000 technicians barely three weeks after the collective agreement was ratified, and little preparation was possible.

Meanwhile in Nova Scotia, the Halifax Herald reported Hurlburt wants to consult with private businesses and unions, adding “You just can’t say, ‘We’re going to do this tomorrow.’”

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