October 19 2022
In 1975, a group of women from the Viennese faction of the Austrian Socialist party demanded a universal reduction of working-time for men and women. The 40-hour working week – itself only achieved in Austria earlier that year – was insufficient, they declared. Like other German, Dutch, Swedish and British socialist feminists at the time, the women saw a reduction in working time as a lynchpin for a fairer sharing of domestic labour, such as housework, child care, and elder care. Their demand, however, was brushed off by their party comrades in Bruno Kreisky’s majority government as untimely and gained little attention in the Austrian press.
Nearly half a century later, and Austria still has a statutory 40-hour week – although most collective agreements are set at 38.5 hours. The country is also known for having Europe’s third-highest part-time rate, with almost a third of the workforce in part-time employment. The polarisation of working-time is also strongly gendered, as most part-time workers are married women, but rates for men and migrants have been growing quickly. The limited availability of affordable childcare outside of Vienna, in particular, means that part-time work for the lower-earning partner has become the most viable way for coupled workers to combine demands for time for waged work, unwaged care work and other housework.
This is often described as a successful story of modernisation: a step on the path towards a more gender-equal welfare capitalism in which all genders are free to sell their labour time for 40 hours every week (known as the ‘Adult Worker Model’). But as the renewed, growing demand for working-time reduction in Austria and around the world suggests, the universal extension of a full-time, 40-hour week appears far from viable – let alone desirable – for many workers.
As political actors and social movements begin to reprise the demand for a shorter working week in these new circumstances, recovering overlooked arguments about working time from past debates becomes increasingly important. In this piece, I turn to the most prominent of the Viennese socialists mentioned above – Johanna Dohnal (1939-2010) – at that time an elected member of the Viennese Municipal Council and the Secretary for Women’s Affairs of the Viennese Socialist Party, who would become Austria’s first State Secretary for Women only a few years later in 1979.
Dohnal, a dedicated socialist feminist from a working-class household, is often celebrated as an icon of Austrian progressive feminism, and for her significant contributions to the opening of first Women’s Shelter in Vienna in 1978 or the Equal Treatment Act of 1992. Little attention is paid, however, to her interventions in working-time debates during the 1980s while in government, which I have uncovered through archival research in the Johanna-Dohnal Archive in Vienna.
As such, I offer an overview of Dohnal’s distinctively socialist feminist arguments for universal working time reduction, and suggest we treat her work in keeping with Kathi Weeks’ feminist reading of the 1970s ‘Wages for Housework’ literature, exploring the texts not simply ‘as a legacy to preserve but as tools to use’ to examine and change our present day.1
Out of the crisis
The corporatist politics of Austro-Keynesianism, focused on maintaining full-employment for Austrian men through synchronised deficit spending, hard currency monetary policy and incomes policy kept the country’s unemployment levels low throughout the 1970s. However, unemployment doubled rapidly from 2% in 1979 to 4.5% in 1983, weakening the class compromise of the 1970s and causing intense public debate over Austria’s economic future.
Supporting women’s part-time employment in the private and public sector became an increasingly loud demand of Austria’s Conservative opposition, who argued that this would support work-family reconciliation. Dohnal, by this time a State Secretary in the Socialist government, however, criticised this as a disguised labour-shedding strategy which was not concerned with women’s wellbeing per se but instead served “to divide the labour movement and to discipline women”.2
In 1981, the Socialist Minister of Social Affairs and head of the white-collar union GPA, Alfred Dallinger, became a vocal proponent of a further reduction in the normal working week from 40 to 35 hours to address rising unemployment. His ministry started publishing studies showing potential positive employment effects, looking to mobilise other parts of the labour movement and the wider Left behind the campaign.3 The demand for the 35-hour working week with full wage compensation was subsequently adopted by the Austrian Trade Union Federation, ÖGB, and by the Socialist youth organisation, SJ, in the early 1980s. Yet, most members of the Austrian trade union elite were eager to avoid strikes for working-time reduction, such as those undertaken by the German union IG Metall, fearing a weakening of the consensual Austrian social partnership model. For much of the early-80s economic crisis, the service workers union GPA, the Social Ministry and Dohnal’s State Secretariat for Women were the only parts of Left fully committed to the campaign for a 35-hour week.
For a feminist shorter working week
Dohnal sought to widen the terrain of the debate, which she found too narrowly focused on reducing unemployment. In her view, socialist feminist labour market policy needed to put a reduction in the labour movement’s gendered divisions at its core. Dohnal therefore considered universal working time reduction, with no reduction in wages, a crucial part of a socialist feminist strategy to reduce women’s dependency on male workers, low-wage employers and means-tested welfare. Reduced working hours at higher hourly wages would particularly benefit working women and all other low-wage workers while also giving men more time for sharing housework.
Aware of the role of trade union leaders in perpetuating patriarchal and racist norms, State Secretary Dohnal warned that supporting a strategy of increasing part-time work for women to keep men’s unemployment low would only generate more disunity within the labour movement, at a time of already low membership among working women and part-time workers. Organising for universal working time reduction, with an emphasis on its radical potential to reorganise gendered class relations presented an alternative organising strategy for trade unions, and would thus be essential for building a stronger an more unified labour movement.
As she put it, “the massively existing tendencies – to push women into the home, to introduce flexible working hours to the disadvantage of workers, to shift the burden of the crisis of our economic system fully onto workers in one way or another, to play off male workers against female workers, housewives against working women, by slogans such as “double income” – can only be countered by a strong campaign by trade unions to reduce working time quickly and effectively”.4 A 35-hour week, she claimed, ought therefore to be the immediate policy focus, followed soon after by a 30-hour settlement.5
A fair distribution of leisure
Other socialist members of parliament, such as Helga Hieden and Adelheid Praher, as well as trade unionists such as Ingrid Schmidleithner and Lore Hostasch, also openly criticised part-time work and advocated for universal working time reduction with full wage compensation. As regional women’s secretary for Upper Austria, Schmidleithner reflected later, “it was important for us to show how necessary this reduction of working time was for a fairer distribution of work between job holders and the unemployed, but also between men and women”.6
While most socialist feminists focused on achieving a better distribution of time within the heterosexual family, Dohnal also emphasised the centrality of greater leisure time. In a 1985 speech given at a Socialist holiday camp called “Who has how much leisure time? Is leisure time justly distributed?”, Dohnal defined leisure time as “that free time available to oneself after satisfying our basic needs and fulfilling our professional and family duties”.7 Reducing the working week, she reasoned, was necessary for abolishing the gendered inequalities in free time and increasing self-determined time for all. Dohnal even developed teaching material for secondary school teachers on the unequal distribution of leisure time and necessary solutions, though little is known about their use.
Austrian corporatist elites eventually settled on a strategy of gradual sectoral working-time reductions to 38 hours in exchange for working-time flexibilisation in 1984, following an influential study by the Advisory Council on Economic and Social Affairs, comprised of scientists appointed by the Austrian Trade Union Federation, Chamber of Labour and the Chamber of Commerce.8 The study concluded that international competitiveness would be harmed by universal working time reduction across all sectors and should thus be avoided. Instead, it recommended sectoral bargaining to account for different sectoral needs. The gender dimension of working-time reduction was mentioned in this study but described as being of little importance to the broader questions of supporting economic growth and reducing unemployment – reflecting the views of corporatist elites who saw socialist feminist campaigns as a distraction.
The loss of the Socialist majority government in 1983 and the beginning of decades of coalitions with the Conservative Party (after a brief SPÖ-FPÖ coalition) marked the end of the period of Austro-Keynesianism and further weakened the power resources of the Left. While Dohnal continued to argue for universal working-time reduction with full wage compensation in the years to come and remained in government until 1995 (as Austria’s first Minister for Women from 1990-1995), her demands slowly faded into the background of the political discourse.
The history of prominent Austrian socialist feminists seeking to promote universal working time reduction during the economic turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s is a tale of failed coalition building during a time of opportunity, but also much more than that. The arguments of State Secretary Dohnal, the most powerful outspoken socialist feminist in government Austria had in the 20th century, still offer tools for those concerned with abolishing the gender division of labour and class relations today even as the terrain of struggle has markedly changed.
Central to her socialist feminism was a concern with universalist policies that both reduce gender inequalities and increase the collective power of workers. Dohnal insisted that political strategies that did not seek to improve the conditions of the most marginalised workers, including the unequal burden of domestic labour and distribution of leisure time, would result in a weakening of bargaining power over the long-term. Today, working time reduction campaigns such as the Austrian trade union’s demand for a temporarily subsidised reduction model called ‘family time’, could gain much from engaging with Dohnal’s perspective. Her work encourages organisers to make bolder demands for working-time reduction with full wage compensation with the goal of more power for workers and more leisure time for all, regardless of one’s gender and family form.
Larissa Nenning is a PhD candidate at in the Social Policy department at the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD research examines the politics of part-time work regulation, focusing on the case of Austria since the 1980s. Her current research interests include working-time policy, welfare reform, Marxist-feminist theories and eco-social policy.
2. Johanna Dohnal (1983) ‘Arbeitszeitverkürzung und die Bedeutung für die Frauenpolitik.’ Perspektiven der Arbeitszeitpolitik. Verlag für Gesellschaftskritik, Wien. Johanna Dohnal Archiv. XXVII. Arbeitswelt, Arbeitsmarkt; Box 1; Bruno-Kreisky-Archiv, Wien
6. Ingrid Schmidleithner (2016) ‘Einführung der 40-Stunden-Woche in Österreich: Zeitzeuginnen erinnern sich.’, in Bergmann, N., Sorger, C., 2016. 40 JAHRE 40-STUNDEN-WOCHE IN ÖSTERREICH. UND JETZT? (No. 18), Sozialpolitik in Diskussion. AK Wien.
7. Johanna Dohnal (1985) Statement für die Diskussion “Wer hat wieviel Freizeit? Ist die Freizeit gerecht verteilt?”. Johanna Dohnal Archiv. XXVII. Arbeitswelt, Arbeitsmarkt; Box 1; Bruno-Kreisky-Archiv, Wien