32-hour work week would be the end of Detroit

If Detroit becomes a part-time town, it will stop being Detroit.

Be careful what you wish for, UAW negotiators. You just might get it.

A week from now, it’s possible that all 150,000 UAW members will be on strike, many of them in Michigan. This round of negotiations with Big Three automakers feels different. UAW President Shawn Fain didn’t shake hands with his counterparts at the start of negotiations, rejecting the goodwill gesture. Fain isn’t interested in symbols but in getting his workers a bigger piece of companies that could not exist without them.

But one proposal that should worry UAW members is the 32-hour work week, with no reduction in pay.

Unions gave some American workers the weekend, and soon social custom and the law followed suit. Anything above a 40-hour week merits overtime. Overtime costs companies more money than they want to pay and asks workers to give up time they’d rather not. It’s the trade-off that brought prosperity to Michigan.

Fain sees the 32-hour work week as an updated model of that approach. Workers would give the company four days and keep three for themselves. As with the innovation of the weekend, other companies and eventually the law would follow suit.

This is a bad gamble, and one can imagine that the 32-hour work week will be one of the first proposals taken off the board.

UAW members need to present themselves as what they are: indispensable. The people without whom none of this is possible. Arguing for higher pay when you do work makes sense. Telling the company you want fewer hours does not. It sends the wrong message. If Detroit becomes a part-time town, it will stop being Detroit. Leadership should focus less on creating a new normal, and more on getting a good deal.

The electric vehicle industry is basically the auto industry 2.0. That means Detroit’s century-long head start in the 1.0 industry means little and might even be a hindrance. It might be easier to raise new workers in the new normal than to thin the herd and move the rest to EVs. Those new workers can be found in the American South or the global south, and they’re often without union representation.

So the UAW is right to worry about a transition that will cut 30% of auto jobs off the top. And that makes the 32-hour work week proposal all the more bizarre.

With the EV, automakers have announced their intentions to do more with less. The union’s position should be an equal and opposite reaction. Asking for a 32-hour work week, however, affirms the automakers’ theory: We don’t need as many workers, or as much work. It’s a bad idea that never should have been presented.

Life is not fair. Fair is what you negotiate. UAW members should make sure their leaders are not negotiating the Michigan auto worker into irrelevance by sending the message that Detroit doesn’t want to work.

James David Dickson is managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Email him at

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.