Where Does the 40-Hour Working Week Come From?

Have you ever wondered why the standard work week in most

Western countries tends to be somewhere around forty hours?


To understand how this came about it's useful to focus on how this idea of working forty hours developed in the United States. Of course, every country has had its own set of struggles and movements regarding working hours, but the story of work time in the United States illustrates very well the kinds conflicts and issues that workers have come up against while trying to improve conditions and contracts in the workplace.


In a highly capitalist society, time is a commodity. Workers, in effect, sell their time in exchange for wages. Once their time is sold that time belongs to employers who dictate and control it with schedules, as well as going to great efforts to ensure that all time purchased is filled with productive work, sometimes regardless of social concern or the well-being of workers.


It has taken the struggle of workers, organizational changes and legislative reforms over the courses of the 19th and early 20th centuries in order to arrive at the standard 40 hours work time per week in the United States. If it weren't for these efforts, today's national standard would likely be a lot more than 40 hours.


Before the 1930s most American workers toiled well beyond 40 hours per week as a standard. Henry Ford was one of the first industrialists in the early part of the 20th century to argue that fewer working hours could generate more time for people to consume and as a result, would benefit the economy.


Ford cared very little about increased leisure time for workers. His focus was purely on capitalist economics. Ford used this argument as a tactic to disarm organized labour movements who were by this time trying to explore reducing work hours. Other wealthy capitalists and large businesses did not share the same perspective as Henry Ford. With support from other employers, Ford then tried to encourage Woodrow Wilson to enact an eight-hour workday as a national standard for the United States, but Wilson refused in light of disagreements from the business community.


Ford began experimenting with a five-day workweek within his own company in 1922. However, some workers saw this as a way for Ford to slow down production as a means to cut wages and offset the reduced demand for cars. No other large corporations followed this approach.


In the late 1920s, the Communist Party and the Trade Union Unity League organised jobless people into unemployed councils to stage country-wide protests and demonstrations. The councils called for an unemployment insurance bill, an end to evictions and a working week of five, seven-hour days.


In 1930,  the American Federation of Labor held a convention to discuss the five-day workweek. As a consequence of the convention, the Federation urged President Hoover to arrange a conference between labour leaders and industry leaders to explore the adoption of a five-day workweek. Industrial leaders flatly disagreed, and the proposal was subsequently dropped.


Seeing no further developments towards a proactive stance on reducing work time on the part of employers, the American Federation of Labor instructed US Senator Hugo L Black to introduce a bill to Congress. The bill proposed a 30-hour working week as a national standard for workers across the country and was introduced to the Senate in March 1933. It passed with 53 votes to 30.


The following month, supporters of the bill cited forward-thinking arguments associated with the need to reduce working hours in order to make way for improved machine automation and to help recover the economy by reducing unemployment.


Eleven days after the 30-hour bill was approved it entered the House of Representatives. The House Labor Committee acted favourably, and William P Connery Jr.,  Chair of the Committee, urged the bill's passage through the House.


At that time, most employees in the United States were represented by the National Association of Manufacturers, who opposed the 30-hour bill. Franklin D Roosevelt also opposed the bill, stating it was unworkable and unconstitutional. He believed that another piece of legislation, the National Industrial Recovery Act, would reduce work hours and boost wages a lot faster.


Through administrative pressure, the 30-hour bill was buried and never resurrected. The National Industrial Recovery Act favoured by Roosevelt was adopted in June 1933. This Act gave workers a say in working conditions and included a maximum, legally permitted number of workdays.


Initially, many employers refused to negotiate with the independent trade unions and frequent strikes ensued. As a result of the massive work stoppages, the US Supreme Court nullified the National Industrial Recovery Act in May 1935, effectively removing the voice it had once given workers. Unsurprisingly, the employers reverted to extending work hours and reducing wages.


Roosevelt was reportedly disappointed to see an extension of work hours and he regretted not supporting the 30-hour bill back in 1933. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed into law. This act established a maximum working week of 44 hours which was reduced to 40 hours two years later. A minimum wage was guaranteed, as well as a law that ensured that overtime was paid at time-and-a-half.


Employers were strongly against the Labor Standards Act, calling it a step towards communism. Some corporations disliked it so much that they challenged the legislation in court on constitutional grounds but ultimately, they failed.


Since the establishment of the 40-hour workweek provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act, labour unions in the US had become reluctant to reinvigorate the 30-hour bill, and during the Cold War era, they also had concerns about an association with the Communist Party, which was still keen to reduce work hours.


In the early 1960s, JF Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson advocated against a reduction in the working week citing that the war on poverty could only be won through economic growth and the creation of new jobs.


Today, the fact that we live in an age where technological progress is improving year by year, and the advent of sophisticated AI that can take over many manual jobs, calls are once more becoming loud for the world to reconsider reducing work time, and to make way for a universal, basic living wage.

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