In Defense of the Six Week Vacation

In my post below about my Mellon application, I’ve got a comment basically calling me out as a privileged academic for declaring that I intend to take six weeks’ vacation a year from here on out. Well, regardless of how much time I take off, I’m guilty as charged. I am a privileged academic. But wait! My brother, an auto mechanic, takes about four weeks of vacation a year. In the last six years (the time I’ve been employed as a prof), he has had significantly more true vacation than me. He also works my mad schedule of 50-60 hours a week (it runs in the family), so it’s a pretty good comparison. Maybe there’s something to this. Maybe we ought to look at the politics of the work week and the work year.

For the French (and Germans, and Dutch, and. . . ) it’s certainly not specific to academics or even the middle class, though there may be exempt job categories. Quebec, at least, has an amazingly progressive maternity leave policy that is available to people like my departmental secretary, who is currently on such a leave.(1)

Some links from a cursory websearch:

and of course, the Wall Street Journal complaining about short work weeks: (though they do note that the EU, as a matter of policy, directs governments to give workers at least four weeks of paid leave; as far as I can tell, this includes department store clerks and assembly line workers).

A couple years back I published a review of Pietro Basso’s Modern TImes, Ancient Hours, an outstanding and terrifying analysis of the creeping expansion of work-time in industrial countries. I’ve linked it above, but let me pull a quote from its conclusion:

As it was in Marx’s time, so it is today. There is a basic conflict of interests between employers and employees over working time. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the widget business or the digit business. Capitalists know that more hours means more profit. It took a militant labor movement to get the working day down to the fictional “eight hour” length, and that’s why it will take a powerful movement to improve things today. Shorter hours for all working people ought to be at the center of any progressive social or political agenda. There is no humane alternative.

So yes, someone who works in a department store ought to be able to ask for six weeks’ vacation with a straight face. It would be right and humane if employers provided for that.

But there is also a politics to vacation time in academia and anywhere else there are salaried employees. Once an organization pays employees on salary, rather than hourly wage, that organization has a financial stake in maximizing the number of hours worked by said employee. If we assume a 40 hour workweek, for every eight employees who work 45 hours, the organization effectively gets the labor of an extra person. Now, granted, in universities you have dead wood and all that, so not everyone is working 45 hours (or more) a week. In teaching, one can submit class size to a similar analysis: the classes of 200+ students I’ve taught over the past six years are, on a per-student-basis, much cheaper than classes of 20, where it is actually possible to practice all the stuff they write about in progressive pedagogy books. All this is to say that it is in the interest of big organizations like universities to make the most of their investment in their salaried employees. (In fact, people who have written about the general decline in tenureable positions in comparison with adjunct and part-time faculty have argued that a speed-up for the remaining tenured and tenure-stream people is part of the reason that univerisites can cut faculty lines at a time when enrollment increases.)

Now, let’s look at those six weeks in context. Take a salaried worker who puts in 45 hours a week — maybe a couple 2.5 hour after dinner stints or a weekend afternoon to catch up. Let’s say the institution normally gives the person two weeks’ vacation a year. Since the salary is nominally for 40 hours a week, that means that over the course of a 50 week year, that person works 2250 hours, or the equivalent of 56.25 40-hour workweeks. Now, give the same person six weeks off per year: 2070 hours, or the equivalent of 51.75 40-hour weeks of work. It gets more complicated with waged workers, but if you figure out how much of those people’s time is spent making profit for their employer (what Marx called “surplus value”), you’ll doubtless find six weeks in there to let the person go relax and enjoy life.

Time is money and all that.

1. While we’re on the topic of Quebec and McGill, they have a pretty progressive policy regarding time off. They stipulate a month’s vacation time for faculty (“when it does not interfere with teaching”), which, if you add that to all the weekdays that the university is closed during the year (many offices at McGill are closed on Fridays for a good chunk of the summer), actually adds up to more than six weeks of time off during a given calendar year. Staff time off is governed by collective bargaining agreements and by seniority, but I would venture to say that the staff in my department have roughly the same vacation benefit that I do.

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