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Shorter Workweek: History & Arguments For and Against


History of shorter work hours

The shorter-workweek movement is a product of modern industrial society closely associated with the trade-union movement. It aims for the normal or scheduled work hours in a week to be reduced.

The concept of shorter work hours does not apply to hunter-gatherer or agricultural economies where the performed work must follow the circumstances of nature. It was customary to people to work from sun-up to sun-down. Yet, many scholars believe that primitive man actually spent less time at work than we. In the 4th century A.D., the Roman empire had 175 holidays in a year according to Harold Wilensky. In the early Middle Ages, people worked eight hours a day for six days in a week, excluding holidays. This saying is ascribed to King Alfred the Great of England: “Eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours play, make a just and healthy day.”

A bedrock of work schedules in western society since the dawn of Christendom has been the six-day workweek. This is derived from the Hebrew Sabbath. The Fifth Commandment given to Moses states: “You have six days to labor and do your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; that day you shall not do any work.” Interestingly, the Jewish day of rest falls on a different day of the week than Christians and Muslims. Jews take a day off from work on Saturdays; Christians, on Sundays; and Muslims, on Fridays.

Work schedules in the modern sense became an issue when, in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, manufacturers required factory workers to work to the point of exhaustion to fulfill their contractual obligations. “No labor statistics are available for this period,” wrote Vladimir Woytinsky, “ but it is known that about 1800 a working day of 14 hours was customary, one of 16 hours attracted little attention, and only a working day of 17 or 18 hours was considered an abuse. Such excessively long hours were worked not only by men but also by women and children.”

The trade-union movement grew out of efforts to alleviate this situation. Factory workers sought to bargain collectively - and, if necessary, strike - for contracts that would require fewer hours of work in a day. In the first half of the 19th century, workers in England and America sought a 10-hour work day, President Martin Van Buren issued an executive order on March 31, 1840 prescribing that the work of laborers and mechanics in the executive branch of government be limited to ten hours in a day.” The Chartist Movement in England had similar objectives. By the time of the U.S. Civil War, the ten-hour day was standard for skilled mechanics.

About this time, a self-taught mechanic in the United States named Ira Steward organized public support for an 8-hour day. Karl Marx noted with admiration how the American 8-hour movement ‘ran with express speed from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California,’ following the abolition of slavery. Bills were passed in Congress and in several state legislatures that required the 8-hour schedule. However, employers found ways to evade those requirements. In the second half of the 19th century, the U.S. labor movement continued to bargain for this arrangement in contracts with employers and engage in related actions.

The most memorable event was a general strike for the 8-hour day that took place on May 1, 1886. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions organized this strike in which 300,000 workers in Canada and the United States took part. As a result, 50,000 striking workers received the 8-hour day, and another 150,000 workers received it without striking. Unfortunately, someone threw a bomb at police officers at a worker rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Four organizers of the rally were hanged.

The international labor holiday called “May Day” began when the American Federation of Labor through the Carpenters union held a strike on May 1, 1990 to win the 8-hour day. When news of this event reached Europe, the Socialist International decided to stage a general strike on the same day. This strike on May 1, 1890 became the first of many annual events. May Day became an important holiday in nations with communist governments.

The 8-hour day became established in U.S. industry in the early 20th century. When the International Labor Organization was created at the end of World War I as part of the League of Nations, its first conference was held in Washington, D.C. in October 1919. From this conference came the “Hours of Work” convention (convention #1) that established an 8-hour or 9-hour work day and a 48-hour workweek for industrial firms.

The focus of attention shifted to the 5-day week in the 1920s. In 1926, while converting from production of the Model T to the Model A, Henry Ford announced that he was unilaterally putting his factory workers on a five-day schedule instead of six and paying them the same weekly wage as before. A few other industrialists supported this move, but most did not. Labor unions continued to press for shorter hours with unreduced pay in their contracts with employers.

Then came the Great Depression with its massive unemployment. President Herbert Hoover favored reductions in work hours as opposed to layoffs. The American Federation of Labor called for universal adoption of the six-hour day and the five-day week. In December 1932, a bill calling for a 30-hour workweek passed the U.S. Senate and went to this House. However, it was buried in the House Rules Committee because the incoming Roosevelt administration favored another approach. In economic hard times, shorter work hours became associated with “sharing the misery” rather than progress.

Franklin D. Roosevelt incorporated hours reductions in the industrial codes that were part of his recovery program. The National Industrial Recovery Act, passed in 1933, regulated both wages and hours by industry. The U.S. Supreme Court declared this program unconstitutional in 1935 because it lacked a clear connection to interstate commerce. President Roosevelt then tried to pack the Supreme Court with additional justices who would support the NRA program. After that effort failed, his administration enacted two pieces of legislation that did pass constitutional muster: the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act of 1936 (which required contractors with the federal government to pay overtime wages after eight hours of work in a day) and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (which established the 5-day, 40 hour workweek for a broader segment of workers).

The Fair Labor Standards Act has stood for seventy years with only minor amendments. With respect to hours, it created a 40-hour standard workweek, which meant that employers would have to pay overtime to covered employees for hours worked beyond forty in a week. The rate of overtime pay was one-and-one-half times the employee’s regular rate of pay. Finally, the act covered only certain employees. Those engaged in an administrative or professional capacity were exempt from the law.

With respect to encouraging further progress toward shorter hours, the principal defect of this law was that, while the time-and-one-half wage discouraged employers from scheduling longer hours, it was a positive incentive for employees. While labor leaders and ideologues continued to pay lip service to reduced work hours, this goal no longer enjoyed active support from union members. Many rank-and-file union members eagerly sought overtime work (and, over time, may have been willing to accept lower straight-time wages if they had frequent access to overtime assignments). Further progress came to a halt.

In the 1950s, American industry invested heavily in labor-saving technology to reduce its payroll costs. Labor theorists speculated about the impact of “automation” upon employment. In 1959, a Senate Special Committee on Unemployment, chaired by Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, was convened to consider the policy options. While this committee considered recommending shorter work hours, it decided instead to support more limited measures such as expanded job training and increased spending for public works. Eugene McCarthy himself continued to favor shorter hours in future political campaigns.

The shorter-workweek option did not enjoy support at that time because respected economists such as textbook author Paul Samuelson declared that its job-creation argument was based on a “fallacy” and because U.S. government leaders wanted to keep American workers working long hours so they would provide the material support to defeat communism in the arms race. Unless organized labor could muster sufficient political support to overcome resistance to the shorter-workweek proposal from the business community, the short-hours cause would fail. That is what happened.

The last serious effort to win a shorter workweek through federal legislation was made in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Supported by a labor organization called All Unions Committee to Shorten the Work Week, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan introduced a bill that would lower the workweek standard to 35 hours, increase the overtime penalty to double-time, and prohibit mandatory overtime in labor contracts. It received three days of hearings in the House Education and Labor Committee in October 1979 but failed to attract a Senate sponsor. Then, in April 1985, Rep. Conyers introduced a bill calling for a 32-hour workweek. It had even less support.

Despite dismal progress in the United States, the shorter-workweek cause was advancing in western Europe and in Asia. The French under Mitterrand moved toward a 35-hour workweek. Labor unions in Germany and other places were signing contracts for weekly hours shorter than forty. European workers were also receiving much more generous amounts of vacation time than their American counterparts.

In 1987, the Japanese government made a commitment to reduce annual work hours to “as close as possible to 1,800 hours” within five years. That gave the famously workaholic Japanese workers more leisure than workers in America. In 1995, the People’s Republic of China enacted a five-day week for the bulk of its work force, abandoning five-and-a-half-day or six-day work weeks. The Chinese economy thereafter grew by leaps and bounds, driven by exports to the United States.

In the 21st century, there has been little or no discussion of shorter-workweek proposal in the United States. With the financial crisis of late 2008, however, the U.S. economy is facing its worst crisis since the Great Depression. Depression-era measures such as fiscal stimulus are the preferred remedy. Some have questioned, however, whether injecting more money into the economy is a cure for the unemployment problem. Some, even, have revived the idea of a shorter workweek.

Arguments for and against the shorter-workweek proposal

Trade-union representatives in the 19th century argued that shorter work hours would help solve unemployment because more people would be required to complete the existing work if each worker spent less time on the job.
Economists have called this the “lump-of-labor fallacy”. Nobel-prizewinning economist Paul Samuelson, author of a best-selling economics textbook has written: “the lump-of-labor argument implies that there is only so much useful remunerative work to be done in any economic system, and that is indeed a fallacy.”

On the other hand, there has been no rigorous argument in favor of the “lump-of-labor fallacy”. This concept has been traced back to a pamphlet which the National Association of Manufacturers used to try to defeat the 8-hour day at the time of World War I. Furthermore, the proponents of shorter hours have not made the argument that the amount of work to be done in the economy is fixed. Of course, industries and technologies change. By a similar logic, one might refer to a “lump-of-money fallacy” when concepts of supply and demand are applied to financial resources in the economy at a given time.

The relationship between employment and work hours is described by the following formula. Output = employment x labor productivity x average work hours. If output and productivity are fixed, there is an inverse relationship between work hours and employment. Bu, of course, output and productivity are not fixed. Over the long term, both have steadily increased.

In constant 2000 dollars, Gross Domestic Product in the United States rose from $2,502 million in 1960 to $11,415 in 2006 - an increase of 456% over 46 years. Labor productivity rose rose by a similar percentage during this period. Meanwhile, employment kept pace with population growth. Average work time was steady.

Productivity increases are what drives the engine of industrial progress. The record shows that, while the use of labor is four times more efficient in 2006 compared with 1960, unemployment has not risen by a corresponding amount because output has also increased. Presumably, Americans per capita have become more prosperous.

However, as McCarthy and McGaughey show in their 1989 work “Nonfinancial Economics”, this statistical increase in output does signify greater prosperity. An increasing proportion of this output consists of what they called “economic waste”. This is production such as more wars, more incarceration, more gambling, and more medication that is regarded as a “necessary evil” rather than something that contributes to human happiness and well being. The implication is that if the United States cut its work time substantially, there would be little or no impact on useful production.

An argument that is frequently made against proposals to cut work time is that a trade off exists between leisure and income. That means that if a worker receives more time off from work, he or she must suffer a corresponding loss in income and living standards. Certainly that can be true in the short run if an employer reduces hours and income at the same time such as the current involuntary state furloughs in California.

On the other hand, studies have shown that, in the long run, there is an inverse relationship between hours and income both on an hourly and weekly basis. The definitive study was Paul H. Douglas’ work “Real Wages in the United States: 1890-1926”, covering a period when hours rapidly declined. Douglas, echoing the conclusions of the French economist F.S. Simiand, found that real hourly wages increased more rapidly in industries that were cutting hours relative to those where hours were steady.

Since work hours have not come down recently in the United States, we must look to economies in Europe, Asia, and other places to see the effect on incomes. Incomes in China, for instance, have increased much more rapidly than incomes in the United States, even though the Chinese had also received a large increase in leisure. Workers in western Europe enjoy greater real incomes and much more leisure than their American counterparts.

Yet the argument is made that the shorter-workweek issue is whether workers would prefer to take the fruits of the productivity increases in the form of leisure or increased wages. It is further argued that government decision makers have no right to make that decision for working people.

As a practical matter, however, the weakened status of the U.S. labor movement means that there is no strong, organized group that is actively supporting the shorter-workweek proposal at this time. Given continuing strong opposition from business, government action is the only way it can happen. Between economists who say that the shorter-workweek idea is based on a “fallacy” and Treasury Department officials who are clinging to tax revenues to support the government’s huge appetite for spending and borrowing, it seems almost impossible that the political will can be summoned to support the leisure option because leisure is a benefit that cannot be taxed. Instead, the nation is trapped in a web of increasing debt.


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