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A Call to Action: Kicking off a Campaign for the 32-Hour Workweek

by William McGaughey

This talk will be about how to develop a campaign to achieve a four-day, thirty-two hour workweek in the foreseeable future - let’s say, within 5 years. Considering that the present 40-hour week has been in effect since 1940 - 75 years ago - that may seem a daunting task; but bear with me.

The seeds of this campaign have already been sown. Look around you. We are all persons with a lively interest in work hours - even shorter work hours - and there are millions more who share our views. The trick is to find them and motivate them so that a political movement to shorten work time can be created.

I am proposing as a goal that the Fair Labor Standards Act be amended with respect to the standard workweek. It should be reduced from 40 hours to 32 hours, possibly in steps over several years. If Congress passed such legislation and the President signed it, our goal would be achieved.

It may be useful to review the history of this issue. The American labor movement was initially a movement to reduce the hours of work. From sun up to sun down, working hours came down to 10 hours a day and then to 8 hours a day. The most famous event was the May Day strike of 1886 in which American and Canadian workers went out on strike for the 8-hour day. As a result, more than 50,000 workers received an 8-hour day, and another 150,000 received it without striking.

The 1886 strike in America was followed by a general strike in Europe on May 1st four years later. May Day became a kind of labor holiday, ultimately associated with socialism and the Soviet Union. Accordingly, its appeal has declined this country.

But the shorter-workweek movement continued to progress well into the 20th century. The 8-hour day was largely achieved by the time of World War I. In 1926, Henry Ford announced that his employees would work only five days a week, instead of six.

When the Great Depression hit, a bill passed the U.S. Senate that would have established a 5-day, 30-hour week. Instead, the Roosevelt administration supported passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This law established a 40-hour week for covered workers and required employers to pay time-and-a-half wages for hours worked beyond 40 in a week.

We know that progress toward shorter hours has slowed since then, and possibly reversed. There have occasionally been experiments with four-day, 40-hour weeks but nothing has stuck. The time-and-a-half premium wage has become a less effective disincentive as health-care and other employee costs have become more prominent. Also, the labor movement has declined in numbers and political effectiveness. Only about 11 percent of American workers today belong to unions, down from 25% to 30% in the 1950s.

The last major union push in this area of which I am aware was a campaign for a 35-hour workweek organized by a coalition of labor groups calling itself the All Unions Committee to Shorten the Work Week. It was led by Frank Runnels, president of UAW Local #22 in Detroit. This group persuaded Rep. John Conyers to introduce a bill in Congress that would lower the standard workweek to 35 hours over a four-year period, raise the overtime penalty to double time, and prohibit mandatory overtime. Hearings were held on the bill in late October 1979 in the House Education and Labor Committee but it failed to attract major support in Congress and the movement died.

Much of what has happened lately in this area has been outside the labor movement. In the late 1970s, I organized a short-lived group called General Committee for a Shorter Workweek. I wrote an Op-Ed article about working hours for the New York Times that was published on November 13, 1979. My book, “A Shorter Workweek in the 1980s”, came along in 1981. In 1989, former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy and I wrote and published another book, “Nonfinancial Economics: The Case for Shorter Hours of Work.”

The torch of leadership in this area has subsequently been passed to others such as Professor Benjamin Hunnicutt, a leisure-studies professor at the University of Iowa who organized conferences on working hours in 1991 and 1996. Feminist pioneer Betty Friedan, a short-hours enthusiast, attended the 1996 conference in Iowa City as did Eugene McCarthy, Jerry Tucker of the UAW ”New Directions” movement, and the Canadian author Bruce O’Hara.

A year earlier, McCarthy and I had participated at the third “prepcom”of the United Nations “Social Summit” at UN headquarters in New York, putting on a workshop about working hours in one of its basement conference rooms. Ben Hunnicutt and I briefly edited a monthly news letter under the auspices of the Society for the Reduction of Human Labor.

Well, enough of past history. During the past decade and a half, John deGraaf has emerged as a leader of the movement to reduce working hours in the United States. I first met him when he was working on his television documentary, “Running out of Time” in the 1990s. His “Take Back your Time” movement has subsequently dramatized the lack of free time in our society. This conference is an important step forward.

So what have I to say? It’s time to get serious about reducing work time. It’s time to expand our scope of activity and organize. The only direction available to us now is up.

With increased urgency in my declining years, I will commit myself specifically to achieving much the same goal as before. John deGraaf has kindly allowed me to make a pitch on its behalf. I propose that we set a goal of securing approval of legislation to reduce the standard workweek under the Fair Labor Standards Act to 32 hours. The U.S. Congress should amend the Fair Labor Standards Act in that regard and the President should sign this legislation. The process should be well underway, if not completed, by the year 2020 - four years from now.

What I propose is a direct-mail campaign to identify persons who would support this kind of legislation and, ideally, help advance that effort. Specifically, it would take the form of a mailing to identify supporters of shorter-workweek legislation. There would be a letter asking the recipient to fill out a form with personal information to create a list of supporters of a shorter-workweek campaign and also to make a small financial donation to cover the costs of the mailing which, hopefully, would support future mailings. I have done successful direct-mail campaigns before, though not lately. Therefore, your advice concerning this project would be welcome.

Prospectively, the mailing piece itself would consist of a cover letter, another letter with information about working hours, a slip of paper for the recipient to give personal information, and a small return envelope, all inside a large mailing envelope. If we are granted non-profit status, the required postage should be as little as 19 cents per piece. However, there would be additional costs in producing printed materials for the mailing and renting lists of recipients. The post office also requires an annual permit to do bulk mailings.

Whether or not this mailing would be successful depends on a variety of factors but especially whether or not the money received from persons who respond to this mailing exceeds its cost. If so, the mailings can be financially self-sustaining and would continue. If not, they would stop as soon as the money runs out.

An important question would be how large a donation the letter should seek. My inclination is to go on the low side in hopes of identifying more people. What would you think of asking for a $5.00 regular donation with the option of becoming a “patron” by contributing $10.00? Would such a request be adequate to cover mailing costs in light of the expected response rate?

The cover letter and enclosure would, of course, be critical in the success of this campaign. So would the selection of mailing lists. Here is where your advice would be quite helpful. What organizations willing to rent their membership lists would have members likely to support shorter working hours? Does the proposed cover letter make an effective pitch? If you have time to look it over, I’d appreciate your reaction. If you want to contribute $5.00 or $10.00 at this conference and put your name on the list in advance, that, too, would be welcome.

I will personally pledge $1,000.00 for the initial mailing costs. I will also pledge four months of uncompensated labor to prepare the materials for mailing, receive the responses, and administer the list. At that point, we should have a good idea whether or not this project has succeeded.

What if it does? What would come next? With a growing nationwide list of supporters, we could then turn our attention to building local organizations to do the political work. The list administrator would try to find persons in each community who would take the lead in contacting others on the list to attend face-to-face meetings and plan local events. In this way, a real national organization could be created that eventually would approach members of Congress and the President with respect to amending the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Let me say that this campaign already has certain assets. I own and administer a website at, which contains around sixty articles on working hours. It is a multilingual site, presenting papers in French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Italian as well as in English. The site has averaged between 300 and 500 visits per day, and between 800 and 1,200 hits per day, in the twelve months ending in July 2016. The site also contains a link to chapters in my 1981 book, “A Shorter Workweek in the 1980s”, which offers an economic rationale for shorter hours. It could be used as a communication device.

In addition, Robert Bernstein of Santa Barbara, California, maintains a website at with links to other sites, conference reports, and, most importantly, an online discussion group with around 80 active participants. This site, in existence since 1996, has been used by many, including persons at this conference, to share information and stay in touch.

We have the resources to make this work. If organized labor cares to join us, so much the better. We’re all in this together in a venture that could be historic. Indeed, the effort is long overdue.


Note: This was a talk given by William McGaughey at the “Time Matters: The National Take Back Your Time Conference”, organized by John de Graaf, in Seattle, Washington, on August 26, 2016.


Proposed documents for direct-mail campaign:

cover letter

a pitch to support this effort

a reply form to be enclosed with the letter




Click for a translation into:

French - Spanish - German - Portuguese - Italian


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