The Metal Workers win the 38-hour week

On 8 December 1981, unionists in the metal industry voted to end a long industrial campaign, and won the 38-hour week.

Their victory was hugely significant, paving the way for the 38-hour week to become standard in other industries as well.

Unions have always campaigned for workers to have a decent work/life balance.

This goes all the way back to the successful campaign for the eight-hour day by building unions in Melbourne and Sydney in 1856.

These workers argued that they had a right to rest and recreation – their lives should be more than just the work they did.

Unions have never stopped campaigning for this right to work/life balance.

In the early twentieth century we won the 44-hour week, and in 1948 the 40-hour week became standard after a long union struggle.

In the late 1970s, there was a major push by unions to win the 35-hour week. This was seen as a way to navigate the spiralling crisis in unemployment, as well as to win better conditions for workers.

The Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union led the campaign with the slogan: “Thirty-five hours, more jobs, more leisure.”

From 1979, their campaign began in earnest. The union launched a campaign of consistent mobilisation of members: there were regular mass union meetings, a day of strike action each month, and bans on working overtime. Some workplaces saw more elongated work action.

In 1981, the union held a 48-hour strike. 

This campaign was necessary because of opposition from large employer groups and the government.

Eventually, the employers were willing compromise, agreeing to a reduction to 38-hours per week and an increase in pay. 

On 8 December 1981, union members voted to accept this deal. 

The metal workers had long been at the forefront of winning workers’ rights. Quite often in the twentieth century their hard-won victories became “benchmarks”. Rights they won would become precedents for unions in other industries to claim. 

And so it was with the 38-hour week. An Arbitration Commission decision in 1983 and a National Wage Case determination in 1986 led to the 38-hour week becoming the new general standard.  

This right was not given to us. It was won by the determined action of working people in their unions.

With unions under consistent attack in recent years, we have seen that too many workers do not have the right to a 38-hour week. Insecure work and other pressures mean that some workers work well over this limit, and others desperately want that many hours but cannot get them.

This is why we need strong unions – to defend our rights at work, and protect our right to a life outside of work.

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