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PREPARED REMARKS: Chairman Bernie Sanders Leads HELP Committee Hearing on a 32-Hour Workweek

WASHINGTON, March 14 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, today led the committee in a hearing titled, “Workers Should Benefit from New Technology and Increased Productivity: The Need for a 32-Hour Work Week with No Loss in Pay.”

Sanders’ remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below and can be watch here:

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions will come to order.

This morning we are going to talk about an issue that is very rarely discussed in the halls of Congress or in the United States Senate – and that is the need to reduce the standard workweek in America.

In fact, the last time, as we understand it, the Senate held a hearing on this subject was in the year1955. So I think maybe the time is now to renew that discussion.

At that hearing the Senate heard from Walter Reuther, who was the head of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations – one of the great labor leaders in the history of our country.

And this is what Mr. Reuther said: “We fully realize that the potential benefits of automation are great, if properly handled. If only a fraction of what technologists promise for the future is true, within a very few years automation can and should make possible a 4-day workweek … The reduction of the workweek to 35 or 30 hours in the coming decade can be an important shock absorber during the transition to the widespread use of automation. It can both reduce the impact of sharp rises in output and increase the manpower requirements in industry and commerce.”

And, yet, today, nearly 70 years later, despite an explosion as we all know in technology and a massive increase in worker productivity, nothing has changed.

Think about that. Think about the huge transitions we have seen in the economy, but in terms of the workweek nothing has changed.

While we haven’t discussed this issue for a long time in Congress, this is not a new issue.

In 1886, one of the central planks of the trade union movement in America was to establish an eight-hour workday with a simple and straightforward demand: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will.” That was back in 1886.

Americans of that era were sick and tired of working 12-hour days for six or seven days a week with very little time for rest, relaxation or quality time with their families. They went out on strike, they organized, they petitioned the government and business owners and they achieved real results after decades of struggle.

In 1916, President Wilson signed legislation into law to establish an eight-hour workday for railroad workers.

Six years later, the Ford Motor Company became one of the first major employers in America to establish a five-day workweek for autoworkers.

And here is something I believe most people in our country do not know: In 1933, the United States Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation to establish a 30-hour workweek by a vote of 53-30. That was 1933.

While that legislation ultimately failed as a result of intense opposition from corporate America, a few years later President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law and a 40-hour workweek was established in 1940. My friends. In 1940.

Unbelievably, 84 years later, despite massive growth in technology and worker productivity, millions of workers in our country are working longer hours for lower wages.

And I hope people hear this. Because it is not an issue that we talk about enough. Today in America, 28.5 million Americans – 18% of our workforce – now work over 60 hours a week and 40 percent of employees in America now work at least 50 hours a week. We were talking about a 40-hour workweek 80 years ago, and that is what people today, despite the explosion of technology, are working.

The sad reality is, Americans now work more hours than the people of most other wealthy nations. And we’re going to talk about what that means to the lives of ordinary people.

In 2022, employees in the United States, and I hope people hear this, logged 204 more hours a year than employees in Japan, and they’re hardworking people in Japan. 279 more hours than workers in the United Kingdom, and 470 more hours than workers in Germany.

Despite these long hours, the average worker in America makes almost $50 a week less than he or she did 50 years ago, after adjusting for inflation.

Now let that sink in for a moment. Think about all of the extraordinary changes in technology that we seen over the past 50 years – computers, robotics, artificial intelligence – and the huge increase in worker productivity that has been achieved during that time.

In factories and warehouses, robots and sophisticated machinery did not exist then or were only used in primitive forms.

In grocery stores and shops of all kinds, there were no checkout counters that utilized bar codes.

As a result of the extraordinary technological transformations that we have seen in recent years, American workers are now over 400% more productive than they were in the 1940s. Extraordinary. Technology has made working people far more productive.

And what has been the result of all of that productivity increase for working people?

Almost all of the economic gains of that technological transformation have gone straight to the top, while wages for workers have remained stagnant, or even worse.

While CEOs are making nearly 350 times as much as their average employees, workers throughout the country are seeing their family life fall apart as they are forced to spend more and more time at work.

They are missing their kids’ birthday parties and little league baseball games. And just the time they need with their family.

And what stresses them out even further is that – after spending all of this time at work – many of them still are living paycheck to paycheck, and can’t take of their basic needs.

At a moment in history when artificial intelligence and robotics – and I hope we all understand that the jobs that people have today ain’t gonna be there in many cases in 15 years. Our economy is going to be transformed through artificial intelligence and robotics.

The question that we are asking today is a pretty simple question – do we continue the trend that technology only benefits the people on top, or that we demand that these transformational changes also benefits working people? And one of these benefits must be a 32-hour workweek.

And this is not a radical idea.

France, the seventh-largest economy in the world, has a 35-hour work week and is considering reducing it to 32.

Norway and Denmark, their workweek is about 37 hours and Belgium has already adopted a 4-day workweek.

And what we are going to hear today is there are companies all over our country and all over the world that have adopted the four-day workweek and you know what they have found? They found that productivity actually went up. Because workers were able to focus on their work, they were not exhausted, they were happy to go to work.

So the issue that we are talking about today is of enormous importance. Who benefits from the exploding technology? The wealthiest people who are doing phenomenally well or working people who are falling further and further behind?

And with that, let me give the mic over to Senator Cassidy.