Consider a headline story in the New York Times from July 31, 1910, exactly one hundred years and one month ago: HOW LONG SHOULD A MAN’S VACATION BE? PRESIDENT TAFT SAYS EVERY ONE SHOULD HAVE THREE MONTHS. I’m not making this up. Three months! President Taft! The conservative Republican President who was most famous for his appetite.
“Two to three months vacation,” Taft was quoted as saying, “are necessary in order to enable one to continue his work the next year with that energy and effectiveness which it ought to have.” He suggested that men and women alike should have “a change of air where they can expand their lungs and get exercise in the open.”
The article contained a subtitle: WHAT BIG EMPLOYERS OF LABOR AND MEN OF AFFAIRS [probably quite a few of them I suspect] THINK ON THE SUBJECT. Leading industrialists and bankers of the day were asked what they thought of Taft’s suggestion. Some actually thought it was a good idea. Not surprisingly, others thought it was crazy, but conceded that a month off wouldn’t be a bad idea.
That was one hundred years and one month ago, when we produced a tiny fraction of what we do today. And Taft wasn’t the first to call for legal vacations for everyone. The great naturalist John Muir, father of our National Park system and recently re-immortalized by Ken Burns, called for “Centennial Freedom” in an 1876 newspaper article. He urged Congress to pass a “law of rest” giving everyone the right to vacation time no matter their station in society. “We work too much and rest too little,” Muir wrote, capping the article off with the observation that “Compulsory education may be good; compulsory recreation may be better.”
Well, now it’s 2010 and vacations are a disappearing necessity, important for our health and for family bonding but ignored by our policymakers. The United States shares with Guyana, Suriname, Nepal, and that paragon of human rights, Burma, the dubious distinction of being the only nations in the world without a law mandating paid vacations.
Congressman Alan Grayson wants to change that. He introduced the Paid Vacation Act of 2009, a modest proposal mandating one to two weeks of paid vacation for American workers, a quarter of whom get none at all. All Europeans, by contrast, get at least four weeks and many get six or more. But judging by the explosive response in the conservative Blogosphere, you’d think Grayson had called for the end of western civilization as we know it. “He wants American to become a 21st Century France,” charged one outraged blogger. Does that mean that if the law passes we’ll all end up drinking red wine and eating brie? Oh, the horror!
But as I mention in my article “Less Work, More Life,” in the September 2010 issue of THE PROGRESSIVE magazine, vacation is only one of many ways to give Americans more time to care for their families, health, communities and environment. MomsRising has been a leader in the fight for much needed family leave and workplace flexibility. CLASP and other groups have led the fight for paid sick days.
Economist Dean Baker champions a German policy called Kurzarbeit, that tops up the salaries of workers, encouraging companies to keep everyone employed with shortened hours, rather than lay workers off. As a result, German unemployment did not rise during the recession and the German economy has bounded back. Such a policy, as Baker argues, should be a big part of any new stimulus package.
I also particularly like a Dutch law called The Hours Adjustment Act, which requires businesses to allow workers to reduce their hours while keeping the same hourly salary, chances for promotion, health care and pro-rated benefits. The law expands freedom of choice for millions of workers. Employers must grant the requests unless they can show it will mean a hardship for the firm, something that happens in less than five percent of cases.
All of these ideas merit consideration from progressives and from the Obama administration. It’s time to catch up with the rest of the world and reduce working hours so all can work (while raising the minimum wage so poorer workers don’t suffer from income losses). Our savings in health costs along will more than make up for the cost of these measures. We want bread, and roses too!
John de Graaf is the Executive Director of TAKE BACK YOUR TIME (www.timeday.org)