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A Short History of Shorter Working Hours



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leisure in ancient times | labor's fight for shorter workday | effect of the Great Depression | U.S. abandons goal of more leisure | contemporary efforts to revive progress in this area 


According to the Book of Genesis, the history of the shorter workweek began with the Creation itself. The Scripture reads: “On the sixth day God completed all the work he had been doing, and on the seventh day he ceased from all his work. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on that day he ceased from all the work he had set to do.” God intended that mankind should imitate this rhythmic pattern of work and rest. Therefore, among the Ten Commandments which Moses gave to the people of Israel is the fifth one, which states: “Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. You have six days to labor and to do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; that day you shall not do any work.” ....

The distinction runs through the Judeo-Christian tradition between the “sacred” and the “secular”, between “what belongs to God” and “what belongs to Mammon”. Work is clearly perceived to be within man’s secular domain. Working on the Sabbath was considered a sin by the Hebrew society. What was done with one’s time on the other six days was of lesser consequence. Nothing in the teaching of Moses or Jesus requires, or even suggests, that a person should spend a certain number of days or hours working for an employer. The “spirit” of the Fifth Commandment is, perhaps, that the dividing line between the hours of work and hours of leisure should be drawn on the basis of one’s priorities, whether to prefer material things or “things of the spirit.” The length of the legal workweek would depend on national priorities, whether to seek “improved living standards” and increased GNP, on one hand, or a fuller and richer spiritual life, on the other.

Those today who base long hours of work upon a “Christian” doctrine or a religiously-inspired “work ethic” are taking their cue, not from Jesus, but from John Calvin or, perhaps, the Apostle Paul, who wrote: “The man who will not work shall not eat.” (Paul’s words represent a practical accommodation to a crisis in the early Christian community whose economy was based originally, not on work but on property donations from converts.) Jesus himself lured the disciples out of the work force, so to speak, making them “fishers of men” rather than fishermen. He sent the Disciples to preach the Gospel throughout the towns of Israel, instructing them to take “no bread, no pack, no money in their belts”, but to be received into local households for their daily meals.

Jesus said this specifically about work: “Consider how the lilies grow in the fields; they do not work, they do not spin; and yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his splendor was not attired like one of these. But if that is how God clothes the grass in the fields, which is there today, and tomorrow is thrown on the stove, will he not the more clothe you? How little faith you have! No, do not ask anxiously, ‘What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What shall we wear?’ All these are things for the heathen to run after, not for you.”

Leisure originally did not mean idle pastimes or frivolous pursuits but was associated with religious celebration, as in the religious festivals or “holy days”. Indeed, the struggle to gain more free time for such purposes is closely related to the establishment of religion itself. Moses began his religious career as one so filled with outrage at the excessive work required of his fellow Hebrews that he murdered an Egyptian foreman. Returned from a sojourn in the desert, Moses and his brother Aaron approached Pharaoh with this demand: “These are the words of the Lord the God of Israel: ‘Let my people go so that they may keep my pilgrim-feast in the wilderness.’”

Pharaoh’s reply reflects the timeless attitude of bosses and administrators: “Moses and Aaron, what do you mean by distracting the people from their work? Back to your labors! You people already outnumber the native Egyptians; yet you would have them stop working!” Pharaoh called the Hebrews a “lazy people”, and ordered them on no account to reduce their daily production of bricks. It took five plagues and several miracles for Moses to persuade Pharaoh to reconsider his position, three more plagues and a parting of the Red Sea waters for the Hebrew people finally to escape that work-obsessed Egyptian society and begin their journey to the Promised Land.


Religious festivals and holidays, of course, are not limited to the Jewish or Christian traditions. Reportedly, the pagan holidays of Rome were so numerous that the average Roman worker worked about the same number of hours in a year as Americans do today. Professor Harold Wilensky pointed out: “In the old Roman calendar, out of 355 days, nearly one third (109) were marked as .. unlawful for judicial and political business. In the last two centuries of the republic, festival days were stretched to accommodate more spectacles and public games. The Roman passion for holidays reached its climax in the middle of the fourth century when days off numbered 175. If we assume a 12-hour day, which is probably on the high side, total working time would be only about 2,160 hours a year ...

In time, Christian holidays replaced the pagan celebrations. A series of more or less pious observances took place throughout the year in medieval Europe. But now, with a slackening of religion, the Christian holidays are themselves being supplanted by the modern “commercial holidays”. Christmas has become a time when Santa Claus brings presents to children and the stores are crowded with holiday shoppers. St. Valentine’s Day is the occasion to buy greeting cards or flowers for a loved one. Some “holidays” are frankly commercial: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Secretary’s Day, Nurse’s Day, Grandparent’s Day, and its ill-fated predecessor, “Sweetest Day” (originated by a Chicago advertising agency representing the candy industry, whose theme was to bring a box of candy to a senior citizen.)

The sign of a commercial holiday, as opposed to a religious or national one, is two-fold: (1) that it does not involve giving workers any additional time off from work, and (2) that it requires the celebrators of the holiday to spend money in the stores to show their love or personal regard for another person, with the implication that failure to do this indicates a weakening of their relationship.
With the onslaught of commercialism, the religious Sabbath is almost gone. The Christian day of worship, Sunday, features good television viewing, professional athletics, shopping and driving around town, as well as attending church. Even though most of the Kresge family, principal owners of K-Mart, are born-again Christians, they too found it necessary to keep their stores open on Sundays to meet the competition. Paid vacations make no pretense of commemorating any event except, perhaps, the date when one was hire, which determines how many weeks a worker gets. In our times, leisure is not what it once was under the influence of religion.

In understanding how working hours are reduced, it should be recognized that the trend has not been in a single direction. Dimly, we assume that primitive man was a slave to work and it is only because of mechanical inventions, accumulated capital, increased use of energy, and advanced forms of social and economic organization that people today can enjoy leisure without impoverishment. That conception is not quite true.

work hours in earlier times

Professor Wilensky has pointed out: “In the perspective of several centuries, time at work increased before it decreased. The secular decline in hours and days of work is greatly exaggerated by the usual comparison of gross daily or weekly averages with those of the ‘take-off’ period of rapid economic growth in England, France, and America - a time of horrendous working schedules and conditions. Estimates of annual hours and days of work for populations of earlier times yield less confidence in great progress and surely suggest the absence of a unilinear downward trend in the past several centuries.”

In a primitive hunting or agricultural economy, working hours are not separated from the time that is devoted to other activities. Labor is not bought and sold in units of time. The activities which we would regard as work follow a daily or seasonal cycle. Normally, work time would be limited to the daylight hours or to times when crops might be planted or harvested. Wladimir Woytinsky noted that ‘in the early Middle Ages, scarcely more than 48 hours on the average constituted a week’s work; the 8-hour day was the normal working day. Legend attributes to King Alfred the Great the saying: ‘eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours play, make a just and healthy day.’ This condition persisted in the following centuries under the rule of the guilds.” For example, Parisian wire drawers during the 14th Century received 30-day annual vacations and normally worked fewer than 200 days in a year.

Woytinsky observed that working hours began to increase in the late middle ages as political power became concentrated at the national level. Intending to increase the nation’s wealth, a royal statute enacted during the reign of England’s King Henry VII prescribed a 12-hour work day during the summer months. In the Elizabethan period, this was shortened somewhat. But it was the development of industrial and commercial empires which saw the greatest lengthening of hours.

Woytinsky described the process: “The growth of capitalism during the second half of the eighteenth century brought an unprecedented lengthening of the working day. The increasing use of expensive machinery; the establishment of large factories whose owners and employees did not work side by side as did the guild masters and their journeymen; the new ideology of the entrepreneurs, who repudiated traditional economic restraints and improved lighting arrangements such as gaslight introduced into factories at the close of the eighteenth century - all these furnished important drives in the direction of longer hours ... No labor statistics are available for this period, 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 whose labor was used on a particularly large scale in the textile factories.”


the American labor movement

The labor movement developed in reaction to such conditions. Consistently its goal in the early days was to reduce the length of the work day. This is a part of American history which lately we seem to have forgotten. As early as 1791, carpenters in Philadelphia went on strike for a 10-hour day, demanding extra pay for hours worked beyond that. Caulkers and shipbuilders in New York City struck for a ten-hour day in 1806. As the winds of Jacksonian democracy stirred popular expectations, the ten-hour movement picked up steam, especially in Boston and Philadelphia. In those days, the customary work schedule was “sun up to sun down”, which meant that the length of the work day varied from seven and a half hours in the winter to twelve hours in the middle of summer.

In 1822, Philadelphia millwrights and mechanics attempted unsuccessfully to establish a system of uniform ten-hour days. However, in 1835, mechanics in the Philadelphia Navy Yard waged a similar campaign which resulted in a breakthrough for working people. In place of a seasonal schedule, the U.S. Government agreed to allow the Navy Yard mechanics to work ten hours a day throughout the year. The National Trade Union, convened in Philadelphia in 1836, petitioned the President of the United States to apply this schedule to all Federal yards. Their request was granted on March 31, 1840, when President Martin Van Buren issued an executive order limiting the work of all mechanics and laborers in the Executive Branch to “the number of hours prescribed by the ten-hour system.”

This agreement, which was the first significant action undertaken by the Federal government with respect to labor, stood as a landmark of social progress for many years. Private employers generally stayed with the “sun-up to sun-down” arrangement. Attempts were made in several of the state legislatures to limit the hours that were required by businesses incorporated in those states but the efforts failed, largely because the laws usually allowed employers to negotiate specific contracts with workers for longer hours. Workers who refused to sign were not hired, and in many instances were blacklisted by employers in an area.

The trade unions, loosely organized during this period, were no match for employers in the use of legal and political tactics. Nevertheless, working people did continue to petition their government for shorter hours. Their arguments stressed that increased leisure would give them a greater opportunity for education and self-improvement and would enable them to become better citizens.
Their religious bent was evident at the Ten Hours State Convention held in Boston in 1852 where the following resolution was adopted: “We believe it is the intention of the Great Creator to shorten the time of man’s toil, and to extend the opportunities for moral, social, and intellectual improvement, by the introduction of labor-saving machinery, and by the power and mechanical uses of water, steam and electricity .... If it be God’s will to abridge man’s daily labor to eight, six, or even less hours, we ought cheerfully to submit and say - ‘Thy will be done.’”

The ten-hour workday spread slowly through American industry in the middle of the 19th Century. By 1860, it had become the standard schedule for most skilled mechanics. During the Civil War years, however, a self-taught machinist and social reformer named Ira Steward aroused considerable public support for the concept of the eight-hour working day. Steward was inspired by the belief that American workers might limit themselves to eight hours of work each day while receiving the same pay as before, and that they might bring this about by passing a law or simply refusing en masse to work more hours.

Steward’s ideas had great influence but they never achieved the practical success which he and his supporters anticipated. Bills were passed in Congress to enact an eight-hour day and they actually passed in six state legislatures. However, as the organizing committee of the Eight-Hours movement itself admitted in 1867, “for all practical intents and purposes they might as well have never been placed on the statute book, and (they) can only be described as frauds on the labouring class.” In the economic slump which followed the Civil War, employers all too easily evaded the requirements of these laws. Legislation alone could not accomplish what the economy was not ready to receive. With that realization, the movement ran out of steam.

For all its failing, the Eight-Hours movement gave workers a taste of the practical difficulties involved in reducing work time and a desire to deal more effectively with the economic forces that governed their lives. The grand political schemes persisted but, more importantly, workers learned to organize by industry and trade in response to a similar structure among employers. Labor unions were formed to bargain with the employer. Strikes were called to bring economic pressure to bear. Always the struggle to achieve shorter hours was foremost among labor’s objectives. It was no exaggeration, then, that George Meany commented at a labor symposium on shorter hours in 1956: “In effect, the progress towards a shorter work day and a shorter work week is a history of the labor movement itself.”

May Day

The drive for an eight-hour day began to achieve its first tangible results in the 1880s. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada adopted a resolution at its convention in 1884 that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout the district that they so direct their laws as to conform to the resolution by the time reached.”

This goal had a galvanizing effect upon American workers who smoked “Eight-Hours Tobacco”, wore “Eight-Hours Shoes”, and sang the “Eight-Hours Song”:

“ We want to feel the sunshine;
We want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure that God has willed it,
And we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces
From shipyard, shop, and mill:
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,
Eight hours for what we will!”

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions planned to win the eight-hour day by means of a general strike. The strike was set for May 1, 1886. This effort had an enormous impact upon union membership and upon negotiations with employers. An estimated 300,000 American workers took part in the May Day strike, as a result of which 50,000 workers received the eight-hour day and another 150,000 workers won it without striking. Unfortunately, at one of the mass rallies which attended this event at the Haymarket Square in Chicago, a bomb was thrown which killed seven policemen and four other persons and badly damaged the reputation of its sponsors. But, as one organization declined, another rose to take its place. This group, the American Federation of Labor, was more businesslike and less political.

Although like its predecessors it focused its eight-hours campaign upon May Day - May 1, 1890 - the American Federation of Labor chose not to employ a general strike but instead to seek its objective in one industry first, relying upon one of its constituent unions to carry the ball for the entire movement. The Carpenters Union was the one selected. Under the able leadership of its president, Peter J. McGuire, this union aggressively organized and fought for the eight-hour day. Within a fairly short time, it had won this benefit for carpenters in 36 cities, and another 32,000 persons received a nine-hour day. Following that triumph, the AFL chose other affiliates to pursue the struggle: the mine workers, the bakers union, the typographical workers union. These others, too, sought shorter hours, with varying degrees of success.

Workers in Europe, and ultimately the socialist movement, picked up this issue when the Second International in 1889 adopted this resolution: “The Congress decides to organize a great international demonstration so that in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours ... Since a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for May 1, 1889 by the American Federation of Labor at its convention in St. Louis, December, 1888, this day is accepted for the international demonstration.’

On May 1, 1890, working people in many nations, on both sides of the Atlantic, demonstrated en masse for the eight-hour day. Frederick Engels wrote in the preface to a new edition of the Communist Manifesto: “As I write these lines, the proletariat of Europe and America is holding a review of its forces; it is mobilized for the first time in One army, One flag, and fighting for One immediate aim: an eight-hour working day, established by legal enactment ... If only Marx were with me to see it with his own eyes!”

May Day strikes and demonstrations became an annual event in industrialized countries around the world even after the eight-hour day became firmly established. When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, this day became a holiday occasioning parades of military equipment. Even today it remains a major holiday in China and other nations. May Day is the world’s premier secular holiday - a time when people can protest various kinds of injustices. All this began with a strike for the eight-hour day.

The strikes continue

The fight was hardly over when the May Day strikers won their eight-hour day. In 1901, the Colorado Supreme Court declared that state’s eight-hour law to be unconstitutional. Despite a referendum overturning that decision, miners refused to abandon their current work schedules calling for a 7-day, 84-hour workweek. When the mine workers struck, troops were called to break the strike. Thousands of workers were driven at bayonet point from their homes and shipped elsewhere. Over a 15-month period, the soldiers killed 42 strikers and wounded 1,112 others. But the workers led by Charles Moyer and “BiG Bill” Haywood continued to fight and eventually won the eight-hour day and a $3-a-day minimum wage.

Elsewhere, 39 persons were killed in a strike for the eight-hour day by San Francisco trolley car workers in 1907. Five were killed in a 1916 strike by lumber workers in Everett, Washington.
The steel strike of 1919 was one of the largest events in support of shorter hours. The steel industry was then scheduling a six-day, 72-hour workweek. The strikers demanded an eight-hour day, one day’s rest in seven, and end to 24-hour shifts, and union recognition. Judge Elbert Gary of U.S. Steel regarded these proposals as an attempt to “sovietize the steel industry”. Ultimately, the Harding administration led by its Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, persuaded the steel-company executives to reduce working hours in that industry. News of the decision was announced in the newspaper on August 23, 1923, on the same day when President Harding’s untimely death was disclosed.

During that period, organized labor was shifting the emphasis of its campaign away from arguments concerning the physical strain of long hours or the cultural or civic advantages of more leisure toward a strictly economic analysis. Union spokesmen now argued that working hours had to be reduced to avoid mass unemployment. The AFL’s first president, Samuel Gompers, sounded the new theme: “So long as there is one man who seeks employment and cannot find it, the hours of work are too long.”

This approach, however, presupposed a different set of bargaining conditions than in the past: Labor had always pressed its demands most forcefully in periods of prosperity when employers could afford to grant more concessions; but now its appeals to “share the work” were made more often in hard times, a less opportune occasion.

Labor’s fight for a shorter workweek was waged through a series of strikes and mass demonstrations in which concessions were won one inch at a time. Ultimately, the workers had to persuade those in positions of economic or political power. Because the leaders of government or business usually belonged to a different socioeconomic class, it was hard to reach their hears and minds through humanitarian appeals. But, when a breakthrough occurred, progress could be swift.

In England, for instance, the enactment of a Ten-Hours bill in Parliament owed its success primarily to the workers having enlisted the support of Lord Ashley, who had never set foot before in a factory when he agreed to support their cause. Although a man of philanthropic inclination, it is reported that Lord Ashley hesitated to accept the invitation to become their parliamentary spokesman from a representative of the Short-Time committees because of “the sacrifice of leisure, being cold-shouldered by friends who took the opposite view, perpetual worry and anxiety, constant work, running here and there about the country, mixing with people of a very different type from those they had been accustomed to, many of them of the most unpleasant character.”

Lord Ashley discussed these many difficulties with his wife. When he had finished, Lady Ashley responded: “It is your duty, and the consequences we must leave. Go Forward, and to Victory!” Thus began a most fruitful legislative career.

Henry Ford’s initiatives

Quite another type of powerful backer was Henry Ford. Ford was a businessman who delighted in defying the conventional business wisdom. He “gave away” money to his employees by paying well above the going rate, and steadily cut the price of the Model T, yet in the process became one of the richest men on earth. Henry Ford was also an impassioned believer in shorter hours of work. A self-styled Wilsonian idealist, he personally urged Woodrow Wilson to adopt the slogan, “out of the shops in eight hours”, for the 1916 Presidential campaign.

in 1926, Henry Ford put his own employees on a five-day, forty-hour workweek with no reduction in weekly pay. This was part of Ford’s revolutionary business philosophy which he and company spokesmen were quick to tell the world:

” The country is ready for the five-day week. It is bound to come through all industry. In adopting it ourselves, we are putting it into effect in about fifty industries, for we are coal miners, iron miners, lumbermen, and so on. The short week is bound to come because without it the country will not be able to absorb its production and stay prosperous. The harder we crowd business for time, the more efficient it becomes. The more well-paid leisure workmen get, the greater become their wants. These wants soon become needs. Well-managed business pays high wages and sells at low prices. Its workmen have the leisure to enjoy life and the wherewithal with which to finance that enjoyment.”

Labor leaders generally applauded Ford’s initiative. Many others, and not just business competitors, did not. In some circles it became a popular theme to “debunk” Henry Ford. The renowned theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who was living in Detroit at that time, charged that “the five-day week was largely a device for concealing or for effecting the lower production which the decreased demand for Ford cars necessitated.” Around that time, the Ford plants were being shut down to convert from the Model T to the Model A in response to competition from General Motors. Rev. Niebuhr castigated Ford for failing to provide old-age pensions, and he would have preferred to shorter hours a system of unemployment insurance.


Policies adopted during the Great Depression

Niebuhr’s preferences came go pass during the Great Depression when the nation soured on businessmen like Henry Ford and, of course, Herbert Hoover. Previously, the Federal government had played a limited role in the economy. There were limited moves to regulate working hours such as the Eight-Hours Law of 1892, which established a maximum eight-hour work day for laborers and mechanics employed by the U.S. Government, and the Adamson Act of 1916, which gave the eight-hour day to railroad workers.

But, with the advent of hard times, public confidence in the old order quickly eroded. There were hunger marches and unemployment soared to frightening levels. The AFL came out in favor of “the universal adoption without delay of the six-hour day and the five-day week.” Accordingly, in December 1932, a bill was introduced in Congress by Senator Hugo Black of Alabama which would have banned from foreign or interstate commerce goods which were produced in establishments requiring more than thirty hours of work per week.

This bill passed the U.S. Senate but, due to opposition from the Roosevelt Administration, it was buried by the House Rules Committee. Nevertheless, in the course of debating the thirty-hour bill, which organized labor was supporting, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce made a counter-proposal supporting a forty-hour week. “The acceptance of the principle of the shortened workweek by both trade unionists and management provided the common understanding for the passage of the NIRA in 1933,” Solomon Barkin of the AFL recalled.

The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) became initially the centerpiece of New Deal legislation for lifting the nation out of the Depression. Under the sign of the “Blue Eagle”, its administrative arm, the National Recovery Administration (NRA), undertook a massive campaign to stabilize employment. The NRA instituted “industrial codes”, setting the level of hours and wages in each industry. Industry boards which included representatives from both labor and management were responsible for setting the standards. The labor representatives pushed for shorter hours and in many cases prevailed.

Usually the workweek was cut from forty-eight to forty-four or forty hours although some unions such as the Fur Workers managed to obtain a thirty-five hour week with no reduction in pay. In many industries, however, slack demand brought hours to below a level which either labor or management wanted. Shortened weeks were prevalent in the construction, rubber, garment, and printing industries, among others. Although the U.S. Supreme Court declared the NRA program unconstitutional in May 1935, its codes are said to have “effected the most universal reduction in working hours ever achieved in the United States.”

Afterwards, the Roosevelt administration moved cautiously in this area seeking the same economic goals while respecting the legalities. The U.S. Supreme Court had found the NRA program much too broad to be authorized through Congress’ implied powers under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. The Federal government had no express authority to regulate wages and hours in the private economy. It did have the power to set rules for its own operation and for bidding on federal contracts and also the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” This latter constitutional provision, known as the “interstate-commerce clause”, was to become the foundation of most shorter-workweek legislation at the federal level.

First, however, a law was passed which set the labor standards for federal contractors. Enacted in 1936, the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act prescribed a forty-hour workweek for businesses that furnished more than $10,000 a year in materials, supplies, articles, or equipment to the Federal government, and provided overtime penalties to be paid when weekly hours exceeded that level. The Walsh-Healey Act also prescribed a standard eight-hour work day.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had promised his Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, when she agreed to take the job, that his administration might support more general legislation to establish a minimum wage and maximum hours and to curtail child labor. On that basis, Perkins had asked lawyers at the Department of Labor to draft such a bill which would meet the test of constitutionality. She kept the draft copy locked in the bottom drawer of her desk.

Once the furor over the Supreme Court “packing” had subsided, the President asked Secretary Perkins, “What happened to that nice unconstitutional bill you had tucked away?” The bill which she pulled from her desk drawer became after a period of negotiation and revision the Black-Connery bill. Passed by Congress and signed by President Roosevelt on June 25, 1938, this law become known as the “Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.” Another title for it is the “Federal Wage and Hours Law.”

The importance of the Fair Labor Standards Act lies not in the reduction in hours which it was directly able to achieve - many workers during the Depression were not even working forty hours a week - but in the legal framework which it established for the implementation and enforcement of the hours standard. Building on techniques embodied in the Walsh-Healey Act, it provided for a flexible system of enforcement through overtime penalties which were to be imposed on employers for each hour of work that they scheduled beyond the standard.

Although it generally covered the employees of businesses that were engaged in foreign and interstate commerce, not all such employees were covered. Managerial and professional workers were “exempt”. So were workers in retail trade, Class I railroads, most branches of the service and construction industries, and agriculture. Mainly this law covered production workers in mining and manufacturing although other categories of workers were added in subsequent amendments. The original law provided for the new standard to be introduced gradually, starting with forty-four hours in the first year until, in 1940, the forty-hour week became effective.


off on other tangents

This brings us into the modern era of labor legislation. Looking back at the Great Depression from the perspective of advocating shorter work time, one sees that the experience was both fortunate and unfortunate. It was fortunate because the Walsh-Healey Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act were enacted to provide a regulatory mechanism and because the nation reacted to a severe economic crisis with minimum bloodshed. It was unfortunate, however, for the “lessons” which economists have drawn from the Depression experience and the harmful alternatives that have been adopted to deal with chronic job loss.

The “wrong lesson” which economists drew from the Great Depression was to associate shorter work hours with cyclical declines in the demand for labor. The Depression was a cyclical phenomenon, correcting the economic excesses of the 1920s. In that context, it was appropriate to use temporary financial measures to stimulate the economy. Shorter work hours, on the other hand, are designed to offset the effect of progressive increases in labor productivity as technology and equipment displaces human labor. This displacement is permanent and needs to be addressed by permanently reduced work hours as it was done in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

During the Depression, shorter work hours came to be associated with “work sharing” or, alternatively named, “sharing the misery”. A finite “pie” (employment) could either be split into fewer pieces, giving workers each a larger slice, or into more pieces of a smaller size, feeding more people. Even though the latter was sometimes preferred for humane reasons, workers really wanted more of the pie. They wanted more work and more income. The Depression therefore taught workers, economists, and others that the solution to inadequate employment was to grow the economy so that everyone could have more income rather than to share a fixed amount of work.

The Employment Act of 1946 created a Council of Economic Advisors to help the President formulate economic policy. Labor policy was thus increasingly put in the hands of professional economists drawn mainly from academia. Academic experts tend to run in herds, favoring or disfavoring certain schools of thought. The shorter-workweek option was definitely in a disfavored category. Influential economists such as Paul Samuelson, author of a best-selling economic textbook, stated bluntly that its basic argument was fallacious. They called it the “lump-of-labor” fallacy. Samuelson declared that “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.”

In fact, proponents of shorter work hours make no such argument that the economy is static and does not change in size or composition over time. For purposes of analysis, perhaps, quantities of something (money, etc.) may instantaneously be regarded as fixed to determine the effect of changing variables. However, the “lump-of-labor” theory is a straw-man argument. It was taken from a pamphlet put out by the National Association of Manufacturers in its fight against the eight-hour day at the time of World War I who, in turn, drew from an 1892 publication by a certain D.F. Schloss discussing workers’ attitudes toward piece work. (Reportedly, the latest edition of Samuelson’s textbook has quietly dropped the reference to the “lump-of-labor fallacy” after repeated complaints.)

In earlier times, American economists such as Paul H. Douglas, later U.S. Senator from Illinois, produced serious studies of reduced working hours and their effect based on empirical investigation. Douglas’ book, “Real Wages in the United States: 1890-1926”, found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, real wages tended to be higher in industries where work time dropped more rapidly. His conclusions are in line with publications of the International Labor Organization and other groups that have studied post-war reductions in work time in western Europe and elsewhere. The positive results may perhaps be attributed to the stimulus given the consumer market when the mass of working people gain higher incomes and more leisure.

As it was said earlier, the Great Depression also produced harmful alternatives to shorter work time. The Social Security program, designed to remove older workers from the work force, has become a financial incubus hanging over the economy even if it has helped generations of older people. Wars, military preparations, and, now, security measures designed to fight terrorism have provided economic stimulus and jobs to many who could not find them in the civilian economy. Keynesian spending to stimulate an anemic economy, federal programs to boost the housing market and create increased credit through home equity loans, and federal mandates to purchase health insurance have all been preferred to remedies that would directly address weak employment such as shorter work time and changed trade policy.

Generally speaking, the federal government has preferred financial remedies - which means borrowing money - to boost employment instead of dealing with structures of the labor market. When John Maynard Keynes came to Washington in the 1930s, he brought a preoccupation with monetary and fiscal policy that has subsequently absorbed economists in the United States. (Ironically, Keynes himself called shortened work time the “ultimate solution” to employment problems in a 1945 letter to the poet T.S. Eliot.) “Balanced budgets were out; strategic borrowings were in. Meanwhile, the government has run up chronic budget deficits and created huge pools of unfunded spending obligations - Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid - that are left to future generations. These financial bubbles all need to be serviced.

Unfortunately, the need for the federal government to service its debt obligations means that it cannot support proposals to reduce work time. The government needs a constant flow of tax revenues to support those obligations. Unfortunately, from its point of view, increased leisure time cannot be taxed. Working people must therefore be dissuaded from taking their “productivity dividend” in the form of leisure but must instead choose more money which the government can tax. And because the U.S. Treasury Department has a veto over most economic policies, the financial considerations will always be given priority.

In retrospect, it is clear that government borrowing was a narcotic. Once hooked on this approach, it’s hard for someone to go back to healthy and sober living. But money is fictitious. Monetary problems can be made to disappear given the political will.

Another factor weighing against shorter hours is that, in the period of political decision, the U.S. government was engaged in a fierce arms race with the Soviet Union. Lyndon B. Johnson, then a U.S. Senator, summed up the attitude: “Candor and frankness compel me to tell you that, in my opinion, the 40 hour week will not produce missiles.” The U.S. Government had incurred an expensive obligation which, of course, had to be given priority over people’s petty desire for relaxation. Americans could not be given a taste of increased leisure lest they become lazy and unfit to compete with the Russians. A “great” people works long and hard to support its political ruler. That, I think, was another reason that government officials did not favor policies to reduce work time.

We began then to hear a drum beat in the corporate media about the “work ethic” couched in terms of our national character. Successful people in business and elsewhere like to work long hours; indeed, it is expected of anyone wanting to get ahead in a managerial or professional capacity. Americans, we were told, had taken advantage of opportunities found in a free society to advance themselves through hard work and, as a result, to create the greatest nation on earth. We were not like those lazy French, whom the Nazis beat, or those socialist Swedes, both declining powers addicted to leisure.

In the 1950s and 1960s - the time of decision regarding work-time policies - its politics was thought to lie in the hands of three parties: labor, management, and government. Labor was thought to be supporting shorter hours, business was opposed, and government was a neutral party. In fact, as we have seen, government was anything but neutral. Business was adamantly opposed to shorter hours for their work force because it would put pressure on short-term profits and management compensation. What, then, of organized labor? Was it pushing for a shorter workweek; and, if so, how hard?

It turned out that organized labor was hardly pushing. While some labor idealists continued to carry the torch for shorter hours, the union leadership came to realize that its membership was not so keen to achieve this goal. The plain fact was that, by and large, union members preferred earning the overtime pay to receiving more leisure time.

The research director of the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite, and Paper Mill Workers admitted at a 1956 conference: “Aside from the workers’ desire for their paid holidays and paid vacations,, there is no evidence in recent experiences that workers want shorter daily or weekly hours. The evidence is all on the other side. Hundreds of local and International officials have testified that the most numerous and persistent grievances are disputes over the sharing of overtime work. The issue is not that someone has been made to work, but that he has been deprived of a chance to make overtime pay.”

A reason that workers preferred income to leisure may be that workers in this generation still had memories of the Great Depression when paying jobs were scarce. Another and perhaps more significant reason was that the Fair Labor Standards Act, in requiring employers to pay time-and-a-half wages to covered employees for overtime work, had created a perverse incentive to employees to accept longer hours of work. Once the overtime culture was established, long hours of work became a way of life. The employee was dependent on this extra income both financially and psychologically. There was no meaningful life outside of work.

An obvious solution to this defect in the Fair Labor Standards Act would be to require that the overtime premium be paid to someone else than the employee so that the requirement of working long hours became unattractive to all parties concerned. In 1979, a regional director of the United Auto Workers told Congress that the French Labour Ministry had announced plans to tax one third of its overtime premium. “Why not, “ he asked, “increase the overtime premium to double-time, or even higher, but have the employer pay as tax all or part of the additional premium into the Unemployment Insurance fund?” This scheme would increase the financial solvency of the fund while appropriately linking unemployment with work hours.

A final reason that shorter work hours may not have been adopted in the United States is that our manufacturing base has been decimated by outsourced production. Fewer Americans work in such jobs so that reduced work time would have only a marginal effect on the economy. Under the “free trade” regime, employers can easily move production to foreign countries with an assurance that the products can be imported with low tariffs back into the United States. If business senses a “poor business climate” in a particular country, it is more likely to move production out of that country. A shorter workweek achieved through legislation or union agitation would indicate such a climate in the eyes of business leaders.

Furthermore, the global economy reduces the salutary impact on employment and consumption that reduced work hours have in a closed economic system. New jobs are not created in the domestic economy because the production shifts to low-wage countries abroad. The workers in those countries are not paid enough to support a robust consumer market.

In conclusion, for all these reasons, the record shows that the average workweek in the United States has failed to decline significantly in recent years. The Bureau of Economic Research estimates that the average workweek dropped by an average of about two hours per decade in the period between 1890 and 1950: from 53.7 hours per week to 41.2 hours per week. Since 1950, the average workweek as reported in the “Household Series” has further declined from 41.2 hours to 39.2 hours in 2006 - about 0.36 hours per week per decide. In fact, the low point was in 1975 when the workweek reached 38.7 hours. Since then, there has been a slight increase.

What became of the shorter-workweek movement in the United States?

One might say that it peaked in 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed. This law had its greatest impact in the immediate postwar period. In the late 1940s, pent-up demand and savings produced a consumer boom reaching its zenith in the 1950s. Those were the days of the drive-in restaurants and the large cars with tail fins. The ceiling on hours created by the federal law ensured that employment opportunities would be broadly shared. Also receiving longer vacations and more holidays, Americans could enjoy life and send their children to college.

The Fair Labor Standards Act itself received only minor amendments. The main type of change was to include more workers under this law. Workers in retail trade, construction, and services came under coverage in 1961; state and local government workers, in 1974; hotel, motel, and restaurant workers, in 1977. The percentage of wage-and-salary workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act in the United States increased from around 33 percent in 1938 to more than 60 percent in 1979.

Still, as automation swept through industry, visionaries began imagining that the workweek would continue to drop and American workers would live in a society dominated by leisure. None other than Richard Nixon spoke enthusiastically of the day, “not too far distant”, when Americans would be working only four days a week and “family life will be even more fully enjoyed by every American.” That was in 1956, in the heat of the Eisenhower-Nixon reelection campaign. The youthful Vice President was promptly overruled by advisers in the White House who dismissed the speech as “an unstaffed idea”.

When a recession hit the U.S. economy in 1958, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution calling for the Fair Labor Standards Act to be amended with respect to the workweek standard. “The time has come for wide-scale reduction in work hours so that more people may be employed,” it said. The action plan had three points:

“ We call upon Congress to take as rapidly as possible the steps needed to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to provide for a 7-hour day and a 35-hour week.”

“ The AFL-CIO also urges its affiliated unions to press in collective bargaining for reduction in hours of work with no reduction in take-home pay.”

“ We urge the International Labor Organization to adopt an international convention to aid in the needed spreading of improvement in hours standards around the world.”

Behind the scenes, labor may not have been so ardent in this quest as it would appear. Although the CIO chief and president of the United Auto