At the beginning of the 1980s, the dream had become a reality for some, with locally negotiated “house agreements” that guaranteed if not a 32-hour week then at least a nine-day fortnight.
But it was an uneven playing field. The majority of workers were not party to any such arrangement, and the Thatcherite work ethic that took root later in the decade kicked the idea into touch for the next generation.
But it never completely disappeared, and this week, the TUC – an organisation for which time has stood still for most of the intervening years – put it back on the agenda.
New technology, said its general secretary, Frances O’Grady, should allow everyone the opportunity to work for just four days, and be decently paid for so doing.
In centuries past, she said, unions had campaigned for an eight-hour day, a two-day weekend and paid holidays. It was time to lift their ambition again.
No-one would sooner see this happen than I, but there are sound reasons why it never has and never will in our lifetime, and they have nothing to do with technology. Indeed, the trend is in the opposite direction, with, as Ms O’Grady acknowledged, employers making their staff work unpredictable hours because of an “always on” email culture.
At the heart of the problem is that sloping playing field. Two-day weekends and paid holidays became the norm because they were applied universally and because the beneficial effect on the population was clear to see. Where, though, is the benefit of reducing our children’s school hours by a fifth because their teachers are working a day less?
One could make the argument – and it’s not one to which I subscribe – that in those cases the 32-hour week could be averaged over a year, taking into account the school holidays. But how will we motivate children to get out of bed on every fifth day while their parents enjoy a lie-in?
And how could a four-day week possibly be accommodated by our farming communities and other self-employed workers for whom even a weekend off can be an unaffordable and impractical luxury?
It is in Ms O’Grady’s clarion call for “decent pay for everyone”, and her insistence that managers must not be allowed to hoover up all the profits for themselves, that her rhetoric rings most hollow. Certainly, no-one should be underpaid for their work, but no-one is more guilty of unevenly spreading the wealth than the unions themselves.
No sooner had the TUC Congress got underway in Manchester than the TaxPayers’ Alliance published a “rich list” of 31 union leaders in the public sector. Ms O’Grady was second from top, with earnings of around £175,000.
It did not specify how many days she put in to earn it.
Four senior staff at the rail unions shared £496,000 between them. The highest payer among these was the RMT, whose general secretary, Mick Cash, was handed £149,000. This, you will recall, is the union whose staff at rail operator Northern have been guaranteed their jobs and pay reviews by the Government for at least the next seven years, yet who are on strike today, as they have been every Saturday this month.
Given that the RMT has no purpose other than to ensure the continued employment of Mr Cash, his individual package of just under £150,000 hardly fits Ms O’Grady’s definition of decent pay. It’s downright indecent.
In all, 31 union leaders earned £100,000 or more, placing them in the top five per cent of UK earners and squarely within the “wealthy” category as defined by the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell.
Unless the TUC intends to elevate the rest of us into the same bracket, it has some housekeeping to do if it is to ever reclaim the place that Mr Heath reluctantly afforded it at the national debating table.
Its annual Congress then was a national event that informed the political agenda for the year ahead. Today, it’s a rather sad sideshow to a workplace which seems to have been left to the rest of us to manage – on all five days of the week.