We are living in a time of dis-ease when the millions who are consistently working long hours pass by the millions of unemployed as ships in the night. The former, physically exhausted from overwork, share with the “chronically unemployed,” themselves psychically drained from months of fruitless search for work, the continuum of employment as the extremities – from none to too much. The most obvious solution – to share the work – never enters the popular discourse. Instead, we are forever bombarded with nostrums from a plethora of pundits, left and right, who must acquire their sagacity from the backs of cereal boxes. They mouth the need for more job training, more government work projects, more tax breaks for the “job creators,” more “insourcing” and so forth.
Fortunately, Benjamin Hunnicutt in Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream provides some clarity regarding the sharing of work by telling the story of US workers’ fight to reduce their hours of toil. If that were all that this book covered it would be noteworthy since most people seem to believe that the 40-hour workweek was inscribed in the Constitution. More significantly, however, Hunnicutt makes clear that the century-long fight for more free time, from twelve-hour shifts to ten, and from ten to eight and less, was a vital aspect of original American Dream.
This American Dream can be traced back to the beginnings of the Republic, to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who all expected that the bounty of the country would provide the time for the citizens to supersede their Greek forerunners and establish the leisure to govern and to develop a truly democratic culture. This trio, and many of their contemporaries, assumed that the citizens of the new Republic, in a few decades, would need only work three or four hours per day.
The most noteworthy champion of this other American Dream was Walt Whitman, who extolled the purpose of the American experiment to create a “higher progress.” Whitman envisioned American history as a three-stage
phenomenon. The first stage was to wrest control of the political process, the second was to develop the economic engine as a basis for the last stage, the “higher progress” stage, which consisted of a free people molding a culture to reflect the best in themselves and their highest goals. It was in this stage that every village and town would have a vibrant arts community and an educational enterprise to rival the European universities.
Whitman, late in life, saw that the machines of the second stage aborted the promise of further progress by sequestering the workers in factories and workshops all day, leaving them too exhausted to be proper citizens, much less creators of art. The country was in danger of being denied its heritage, according to Whitman, by the greed of the bosses.
The remarkable fact uncovered by Hunnicutt was that those exhausted workers had the very same vision as the poet.
They wanted more time away from work to develop their intellectual pursuits, to walk in the woods and to be with family and friends. They fought for free time and succeeded throughout the 19th Century in reducing the hours of their imprisonment from twelve, or even more, to ten and then, in the last decades of that contentious century, they made a mighty push for the eight-hour day and the weekend. Both May Day and Labor Day came out of that struggle. But their goal took over sixty years to be realized. It was not until the Depression that what we consider the “normal” workweek was established by legislation.
FDR’s failure to create sustainable employment through government hiring programs brought forth the demand for the six-hour day. This simple idea was to spread the work around and it caught fire throughout the country. Both houses of Congress had passed legislation endorsing the idea, but though FDR at first backed the bill, in the end he didn’t sign it and instead promoted the slogan we still hear today: Full-Time, Full Employment. Within a few months war production muted the demand and it never really surfaced again as the unions all fell in line, after the war, with the Full-Time, Full Employment program and chose to concentrate on increasing wages and not decreasing hours.
Hunnicutt mentions two outliers to the 40-hour day: Kellogg Foods in Michigan and Goodyear Tire in Ohio. Both companies reduced the workday to six hours in the late 30s and Kellogg kept to that schedule for another few decades.
Given this history it is a tragedy that the labor movement has not revived this venerable demand, especially now, five years into the worst economic downturn since the Depression. Maybe it is time for the environmental movement to take up the historic cause to reduce the workday – not for narrow economic reasons, but for broader cultural ones. Of course, this demand would increase employment, despite the threat by the bosses that ultimately jobs would be lost to automation if the status quo were disturbed.
The intent of this demand would only incidentally be job creation; its main purpose would be to push for less work and more free time for us to expand our leisurely pursuits, whatever they may be. This could be an end run around the issue of economic sustainability. By displacing the dominant role of working for a living, we could begin to value our precious time and devalue the time we sell to live. In other words, we would downsize.
And by downsizing we entertain the prospect of moving into a post-growth society, where what we do, because we have the time, approaches pleasurable activity and displaces the commoditized leisure we are offered in lieu of time to make our own fun.