When the United States Almost Adopted a 30 Hour Work WeekHistorians in the News
tags: New Deal, labor history, work
The nature of work has undergone a lot of changes during the coronavirus pandemic. Millions of office workers began working from home; the service industry has struggled to get workers to come back, and some businesses, like Kickstarter, are now experimenting with four-day workweeks — without reducing salaries. In Congress, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation to make a 32-hour workweek standard.
This “great reassessment” of labor feels revolutionary. But we have been here before. In 1933, the Senate passed, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported, a bill to reduce the standard workweek to only 30 hours.
Americans have worked hard, perhaps too hard, since the Colonial era. English and other European colonists often had to work longer and harder on farms here than in the Old World, and a philosophy of working from sunrise to sunset prevailed, according to the Economic History Association. The Massachusetts colony even passed a law requiring a 10-hour minimum workday.
Enslaved people, whose labor profits were stolen, generally worked 10-16 hours a day, six days a week. Some studies estimate that when slavery ended, the hours African Americans spent working fell by 26 to 35 percent.
In the 1830s, workers in manufacturing were on the job roughly 70 hours a week, often in horrendous and even deadly conditions. By the 1890s that had dropped to about 60 hours. This period also saw the rise of labor unions, the creation of Labor Day as a national holiday, Grand Eight Hours Leagues and the motto “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will.” At that time, “what you will” did not include Saturday; workweeks were generally six days with only Sunday off.
The eight-hour day picked up in popularity in the decades preceding the Great Depression. Federal workers, railroad workers and Ford Motor employees all moved to eight-hour shifts. CEO Henry Ford first instituted a six-day, 48-hour workweek for male factory workers in 1914, according to History.com. In 1926, a five-day, 40-hour workweek was extended to all employees, along with a pay raise. Ford argued that his employees were more productive in fewer hours; critics were skeptical they could be productive enough to make up the difference.
Then came the stock market crash, the Great Depression and record-high unemployment. After an underwhelming response from President Herbert Hoover, he faced N.Y. Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 election. Shorter work hours was a major issue among voters, and both candidates had ideas, according to historian Benjamin Hunnicutt in his book “Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the ‘Right to Work.’ ” Roosevelt (D) pushed federal legislation to establish shorter work hours — something he had already done at the state level in New York — while Hoover backed voluntary share-the-work drives. The idea was that if workers had shorter hours, no one would be unemployed, even if everyone ended up making less money, though unions were also pushing for a decent federal minimum wage.
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