While finishing Barbara Ehrenreich"s expose on low-wage, dead-end jobs, Nickel and Dimed, I was struck by her comment that "What you don"t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you"re actually selling is your life." I"ve made similar observations, but perhaps not in such pristine form, and certainly not for such a wide audience. Being involved with the living wage campaign, Ehrenreich"s book was required reading for me. But this statement encapsulated something more. When we sell our work, and our lives, we sell our freedom, too. The right to a "living" from one"s labors is a vital issue, but I have come to realize that it"s not enough. A living income can help people to eat better, but viewed alone it doesn"t emancipate us. I"ve never forgotten the striking laborer who once demanded, "Give us bread, but give us roses!" In an age of the triumphant market, where everything is bought and sold, we too easily think human labor to be a sellable commodity. Indeed, we spend a lot of time and money molding human beings into marketable sources of work, and creating a lot of purchasable labor time. Since 1980, the average American work year has grown about 100 hours. Americans work more hours than any other people in the developed world. Historically, peasants and serfs treated work as a burden. Ancient Romans viewed it as a curse - which is why they left it to slaves. Today, business and government exalt work-creation as a virtue, and use the media to gain popular concurrence. If that"s not enough, we dig up Max Weber"s famous book and delude ourselves with scholarly prattle about the "work ethic." For business, this creates a compliant, almost servile work force. On a macro-scale, it makes productivity and economic growth easier propositions. As an old union man, I am always sympathetic to the idea that "everybody"s job is important." But a quick walk through Target or Wal-Mart leaves me with the impression that we have way too many people engaged in making a lot of cheap crap, useful only to the corporate bottom line. I have read that if everyone alive realized North American standards of consumption, it would require three earths to provide the material wherewithal. And an institute in Germany recently observed a trend in our time "towards material satisfaction of non-material needs." It"s in modern vogue to think of ourselves as consumers, not workers. Among other things, this creates an idolatry of material wealth. But a consumer society needs high levels of production. Accordingly, we waste labor and resources on just about anything that wrings profits from human frailty then call it "economic growth." The last thing we need is more work. In fact, we"d be better off with a lot less. Technology is replacing human labor at a rapid rate. "Near-workerless factories" and "near-workerless offices" are real possibilities in this century. Anything close to full employment based on the 40-hour week may be the "impossible dream" of the year 2030 Ö if not the year 2003. The coming decades will demand "spread the work" strategies to avoid intolerable levels of structural unemployment. Moreover, the job market has not solved the problem of poverty, any more than "ending welfare as we know it." Ehrenreich cites a study showing that, in Y2K, a single parent household with two kids needed a minimum of $30,000 a year - roughly $14 an hour - just to get by. Most American workers make less than $14 per hour, and two incomes are a necessity for most households. In other words, lower wage jobs have made the linkage between work and a "living" much more precarious. Health problems are also associated with overwork. Job stress and associated ailments impact people at all income levels - not to mention that longer hours increase the likelihood of job-related injuries. Physicians acknowledge occupational demands as creating "time urgency" - and increasingly, physicians believe that time urgency is the leading cause of premature heart disease in America. A legislated 30-hour work week, with additional measures to protect and enhance the livelihoods of workers and poor folks, is a growing necessity. America needs to think in terms of "meaningful work," "living incomes" and "time affluence" rather than wealth and consumption Ö the roses as much as the bread. A time affluent society won"t spend as much time working and shopping as participating in community, culture, churches, schools, libraries and, yes, democracy. More time would be spent connecting people with each other, rather than to machines and gadgets. It"s a matter of choosing the blessing over the curse. That"s why I"ve been organizing the Work Time Reduction Committee of Indiana. This group will encourage people to contact their congressional representatives on behalf of work time reduction legislation. It will also participate in the national observance of "Take Back Your Time Day" this coming Oct. 24 - the remaining nine weeks to the end of year being symbolic of the difference between ours and the shorter work years in Western Europe. Those interested should visit our Web site, www.onet.net/~hours30, or e-mail us at shorterworkweek@netscape.net. In choosing the blessing over the curse, I recall William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor in the 1920s, who said, "Free time will come. The only choice is unemployment or leisure." May we choose wisely.

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