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70 years after Flint sit-down

Workers need 30-hour week more than ever

Published Apr 4, 2007 11:23 PM

PARTS: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

The Flint sit-down strike of 1937 was organized around eight key demands. It was settled with the granting of one: union recognition. The others, such as seniority rights and a set hourly wage, are taken for granted by today’s auto workers.

Yet there is one demand that, 70 years later, no union in the U.S. has won: a six-hour day!

The concept of a 30-hour workweek was raised at least as early as 1922 during a national strike of coal miners. In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, the Black-Connery bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate as a means to put the millions of unemployed back to work. The bill would have required employers to pay time and a half after 30 hours; it also established a minimum wage and set limits on child labor.

Even the conservative head of the American Federation of Labor, William Green, was pushing hard for the bill. The unemployed had become so desperate that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had seen the shorter workweek as unavoidable.

Black-Connery passed the Senate with the backing of Roosevelt, but he later caved in to business pressure and withdrew support. The bill failed the House by the slimmest of margins.

The idea had caught workers’ imaginations, though, and couldn’t be legislated away so easily. In 1934 both the San Francisco longshore workers’ strike and the national textile strike kept the 30-hour week demand alive. Other workers during the 1930s struck for a 35-hour week. Rubber workers in Akron, due to the pace and the heavy nature of their jobs, worked only six-hour shifts. When they launched the sit-down movement in early 1936, it was in protest over having to work eight hours.

By 1937, most autoworkers were still out of work at least part of the year. When they worked, the increasing pace of the assembly line made even eight hours of work physically and mentally unbearable. So, as fantastic as it seems now, it was perfectly natural under those conditions for GM’s wage slaves to demand a 30-hour week.

For over a century a shorter work week had been the crucial demand of the labor movement, a matter of life and death for which many brave workers gave their lives. As early as 1825, carpenters in Boston struck for a 10-hour day; 10 years later children struck the silk mills in Paterson, N.J., for an 11-hour day. In 1877 the five Haymarket martyrs were hung in Chicago, framed up on murder charges stemming from the struggle a year earlier for the eight-hour day. May Day commemorates this historic battle.

In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act was finally passed, establishing not the 30 but the 40-hour work week, after which employers would have to pay time and a half. The 1938 version of Black-Connery was so watered down that the brother of the now deceased William Connery suggested the senator’s name be removed from the bill.

How were the masses of unemployed, whom Black-Connery was ostensibly designed to help, supposed to find work? What happened to those 10 hours needed for rest and leisure?

The workers on the line hungered for rest, the unemployed hungered for work, but the bosses hungered for profits. They could live with a 40-hour week—they knew that some leisure time would encourage spending—but the 30-hour week was something they wanted no part of and lobbied heavily against.

‘Gospel of consumption’

Business leaders had a plan to get workers to forget about that hugely popular notion. In 1927 economist Edward Cowdrick advocated for a “new economic gospel of consumption.” The idea gained steam in the 1930s as a counterweight to the 30-hour week. The plan was to flood the market with consumer goods, creating an artificial “need” for things and a willingness to work longer hours to attain them. Charles Kettering of GM remarked that “[t]he key to economic prosperity is the organized creation of dissatisfaction.”

In the eight decades since Cowdrick proclaimed his “gospel,” the high-tech revolution has accelerated the speed of the productive forces to unimaginable levels. The hours of labor needed to produce an automobile have been reduced to a fraction of what they were at the time of the sit-down strikes. Automation and robotics have reduced the workforce to less than half its peak strength of 1.5 million in the 1970s.

The false promise of automation was more leisure time. Even a Senate subcommittee in 1965 projected a 22-hour workweek in 20 years and a 14-hour workweek by the 21st century.

The opposite has happened. The average U.S. worker in 2000 worked 199 hours—five weeks—more per year than in 1973. Statistics from the International Labor Organization show U.S. workers put in nine weeks more than their West European counterparts.

Vulnerable oppressed workers—especially immigrant workers—must work long hours yet can barely make ends meet. Employers use the fear of deportation as a form of intimidation, and often do not pay time and a half for overtime.

The negative effects of overwork are many. The most obvious is the direct correlation between rising productivity and a shrinking workforce.

The health consequences are drawing the attention of an alarmed medical community. A study covering the years 1987 to 2000 showed that half of all occupation injuries involved working over 40 hours. The risk of automobile injury while driving home likewise goes up. Overwork has been found to increase the risk of hypertension by up to 29 percent for a 51-hour week.

Besides damaging the health of the workers, it even causes potential harm to the environment: studies show a tendency to consume fast food, with its excessive packaging, and to not take time to recycle.

Just as well documented as the detrimental effects of overwork are the economic benefits of shorter hours. When the 35-hour week was implemented in France in the 1990s, an estimated 400,000 jobs were created. In 1988 a UAW study concluded that if the Big Three auto companies simply cut overtime and held hourly workers to 40 hours per week, it would create 88,000 jobs.

Since 1938 not one piece of legislation has attempted to regulate hours of labor. We need a shorter workweek! What could be a more fitting tribute to the heroic Flint sit-downers and the Haymarket martyrs than to raise a slogan: “Thirty-hour day! No cut in pay!”

PARTS: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10