Why we need to demand a shorter work week

By on November 16, 2012

In February, the Detroit Free Press reported that the United Auto Workers union was preparing “arguments over the thirty-hour week, perhaps the most widely discussed union demand of the current labor era.”

If Detroiters reading this are wondering how they missed the news, there is a reason. The quote is from the Free Press of Feb. 21, 1937.

With the crisis of mass unemployment during the Great Depression, unions and unemployed organizations were pressing for a shorter workweek. One of the demands of the 44-day sit-down strike of General Motors plants was for a 30-hour week with no cut in pay. Its logic was irrefutable: If four workers can do the work of three workers, 40 million can do the work of 30 million. That creates 10 million jobs. A headline on a 1930s leaflet said it all: Six-hour day, eight hours pay — Keep depression away.

Even before the sit-downs, the 30-hour week was a demand of the Ford Hunger March in 1932, held in one of the worst years of the Great Depression and in one of the hardest hit cities. Five Detroit workers were killed and dozens wounded by Henry Ford’s notorious Service Department. A year later, however, the 30-hour week almost became law when the U.S. Senate passed the Thirty-Hour Week Act. The Act failed the House by only a few votes, after business leaders put pressure on Roosevelt to withdraw support.

The shorter workweek was not a new concept. Some of the earliest demands that “wage slaves” made on the capitalist class were to reduce their long hours of toil. In 1791, Philadelphia carpenters struck for a 10-hour day. By 1840, that was the norm; the average seven-day workweek was a full 70 hours.

May 1, 1886, was a day of huge demonstrations around the country for the eight-hour day. The biggest protests were in Chicago, where eight leaders were framed up for a bomb-throwing. On Nov. 11, 1887, four of them were hanged, with a fifth dying in a jail cell the night before his scheduled execution. May Day commemorates the battle for the eight-hour day and honors these martyrs.

While it took a century of fierce class struggle to achieve it, by 1937 the average workweek was below 40 hours. However, many workers still worked 50 or more hours a week. They conducted frequent — and often successful — strikes around the most basic demands for the eight-hour day and 40-hour week.

With the massive wave of unionization that followed the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1935, workers gained some say over the grueling speed of production. Right around this time, a capitalist consensus emerged to draw the line at 40 hours: no 30-hour week. Leading the campaign was a secret Special Conference Committee comprised of executives of GM, General Electric, Standard Oil and others, and directed by industrial relations consultant Edward. S. Cowdrick.

Cowdrick was previously an executive of Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron, the perpetrators of the 1914 Ludlow massacre of striking miners. Cowdrick’s secret capitalist consortium successfully lobbied Washington to block any attempt to pass 30-hour-week legislation.

In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act established the 40-hour workweek, after which time-and-a-half must be paid. While the productivity of labor has increased better than fivefold (U.S. Department of Labor; Bureau of Labor Statistics), with the increase highest since the high-tech revolution, not one amendment has been passed to shorten the workweek. And the law provides no protection against mandatory overtime as a condition of employment.

Today, 75 years after the great sit-downs, at least 30 million workers are unemployed or underemployed. At the same time, the average weekly hours of full-time workers are actually higher than they were in 1945.

The trend towards longer hours for full-time workers, with a parallel expansion of the use of temporary and part-time workers, was described in Juliet Schor’s 1991 bestseller, “The Overworked American.” More workers were working overtime or working more than one job. For some, overtime was a job requirement; for others, it was needed to maintain their standard of living. For low-wage workers, overtime had become an economic necessity. Yet, while workers were working harder than ever, average paid vacation time was falling.

Those trends are continuing. In 2006, the average number of hours worked per year was 180 hours more than in 1979. Twenty percent of male full-time workers were putting in at least 50 hours a week. (Juliet Schor, “Less Work, More Living,” Yes Magazine, Fall 2011)

Overwork continues to have a deleterious effect on health, safety, mental well-being, life expectancy, family and personal relationships, and the ­environment.

The capitalist class is demanding more output from the working class and at the same time driving wages down, making it harder to get by on a 40-hour paycheck. Even unionized workers are being pressed to relinquish paid days off, take fewer and shorter breaks, and agree to backbreaking work schedules that undermine the eight-hour day.

The twin crises of overwork and mass unemployment and underemployment can only be seriously addressed by reviving the demand for a shorter workweek. It will be an uphill battle — it took more than a century of hard struggle to win the eight-hour day — but the need is pressing. Six-hour day, eight hours pay! Keep depression away!

Next: What happened to the six-hour day?

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