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What Happened to the 40-Hour Workweek?

Photo by Adam Rubock | CC BY 2.0

As 2017 winds down, it’s important to remember that this year marks the 200th anniversary for the call for a 40-hr workweek for laboring people.  The 8-hour day movement involves not only changes in the workweek, but the struggle over class power.  Turning points in this history of the workweek outline the reconfiguration of modern capitalism:

1817 – Robert Owen, a successful Welsh manufacturer, labor-rights activist and founder of the utopian community of New Harmony, believed in dividing the day into three, equal 8-hr parts — “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”

1869 – At a time when workers put in 12 to 14 hrs a day of work, 6 days a week, Pres. Ulysses Grant issues a proclamation guaranteeing an 8-hr workday without a decrease in pay, but it only applied to government workers.

1926 — Henry Ford implemented a 5-day, 40-hr workweek for workers at his auto manufacturing company; he reminded his fellow robber-barons, “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either lost time or a class privilege.”

1930 — As the Great Depression was raging, the cornflake magnate W. K. Kellogg introduced the 6-hour workday at his factory in Battle Creek, MI.

1940 — Congress amended the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that limited the workweek to 44 hrs, or 8.8 hrs per day, to 40 hrs, 8 hrs per day.

1970 – Minneapolis Federal Reserve reports the average workweek was 38.8 hrs.

Most troubling, the Fed also reports that between 1970 and 2000, the average workweek increased to 40.5 hrs.  A 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimate pegs it at 43 hrs per week or 8.6 hrs per day.

The 40-hr workweek is slipping away.  People are working more hours in the new, ever-so-hip “gig” economy of highly-skilled and independent wage-slaves.  And its occurring as the workweek should be cut in half with full pay and benefits.

***

How many hours do you work each week?  How many hours do you spend each day “working”?

How much time do you slave at your computer, whether in an office, at home, a coffee shop or shared work-space?  How much time do you sacrifice ringing up sales at a local store?, doing paperwork at the public-employee job?, or packing goods at a warehouse outlet?  How many hours are you driving a rig or hack?  How long does it take you to close a deal?, work a meeting or (if you’re lucky) at a reimbursable dinner or cocktail reception?  And how much time do you use to make personal calls, take a coffee or cigarette break or just gossip with workmates?  It’s all work, part of the job, and it likely totals a lot more than 40-hrs a week.

Once upon time, people did a “fair-day’s-work” for a “fair-day’s-wage.”  The great post-WW-II “American Dream” envisioned a world in which the – white, male — industrial worker traveled to the job, clocked out after an 8-hrs the shift (if more, there was overtime) and went home, had a drink, ate a nightly meal cooked by his wife, managed family time, put the kids to bed, turned on the TV for an hour or two of distraction and went to bed.

Today, no one seems to know how long Americans work on the job ach week.  In 2016, the BLS pegged it at 43 hours per week; a 2014 Gallup poll sites 47 hrs per week (9.4 hours per day) as the average, with many saying they work 50 hrs per week. A 2016 study by Upwork and the Freelancers Union found that full-time freelancers are logging 36 hours of work per week.  Others report that those working in the media, high-tech, retail and other sectors, including freelancers, its closer to 60 hours per week.

Whatever the actual hours of work one puts in on a job, one knows it’s not the whole or real story.  Everyone knows the workday has two parts, the actual job and its impact on the rest of one’s life.  In the world of instant communications facilitated by the internet and smartphones, a growing proportion of postmodern Americans live 24/7 work-life.  Today, much of the workday consumes endless hours of home- or personal-life in terms of prep-work, travel, cleaning one’s cloths and buying one’s lunch as well as worry and family concerns.  It’s all considered required unpaid labor to facilitated the job, work.

***

People today do more-or-less the same things (if not more) they did in yesteryear, but they do it in different ways.  However, work-life on and off the job is taking a bigger portion of a working-person’s life, squeezing all other segments.

During the post-WW-II era, a fundamental change in American work-life occurred as consumerism replaced free time and women increasingly entered the workforce to support the two-income household.  In a 1956 campaign speech, Vice President Nixon predicted that a 32-hour workweek was possible under the following conditions: “The workweek can only be reduced at a time when reduction of the workweek will not reduce efficiency and will not reduce production.”  Three factors have made Nixon’s prediction come true, granting Americans to a 32-hr workweek.

First, ceaseless automation of the work process has fundamental change the work-second, let alone the work-week.  Brain replaced brawn, digital superseded analog and globalization reconfigured the domestic marketplace.  Together, these forces led to increased productivity, improved efficiency and sucked the life out of work-life.

Second, the labor force has been reconfigured.  Since Nixon’s days, unions were systematically crushed and an increasing proportion of the workforce became contingent workers — independent, freelance or gig workers.  The BLS estimates the civilian labor force of 160 million workers with the “self-employed” at about 11 percent and contingent workers at 22 percent or about 35 million working people.  Others estimate a higher proportion: a McKinsey study places it at 27 percent and a study by Upwork and the Freelancers Union claims “the freelance workforce grew from 53 million in 2014 to 55 million in 2016 and currently represents 35% of the U.S. workforce.” Upwork/Freelancers Union projects the freelance – contingency-labor — sector will hit 40 percent of the workforce in 2020.

Third, and equally profound, according to the Center for American Progress “in 1960, only 20 percent of mothers worked.  Today [2010], 70 percent of American children live in households where all adults are employed.”  The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that between 1969 and 2000, the work-week for couples — both husband and wife combined — increased from 56 hours to 67 hours.  The two-income household is the new normal.

***

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that within a century, increases in productivity would mean that we would all be a working 15-hr week.  With just over a decade to go, it looks like this predication won’t come true

Other economists shared variations of Keynes’ prediction.  They argued that as advanced economies became more productive, people would choose to work fewer hours.  Sadly, this has not happened.

In the U.S., capitalism is triumphant!  Since the great consumer revolution of the post-WW-II era, Americans have traded a shorter workweek for ever-higher levels of consumption — and ever-greater levels of debt.  The recently-passed Republican tax scam fulfills Pres. Trump’s plan to “Make America Great Again.”  The call for a shorter workweek looks as outdated as the great 19th-century utopian movements.

Capitalism has forged a global system dominated by finance and, ever-increasingly, come to systematically dominate every moment or aspect of a person’s life.  Whether at work or play, at the office or at home or on vacation, Americans know how to function as subjects and objects, to buy and sell.  The market mediates self-hood yet it is being challenged across the globe.

In some countries of the advanced capitalist world, efforts are underway to shorten the workweek.  For example, Germany’s biggest union, IG Metall, is pushing for a 28 hour working week.  According the UK’s Independent, “The union argues that workers should get a fair share in the benefits of Germany’s growing economy in the form of better pay and an improved work-life balance.”

The paper also reports that in the UK, Royal Mail workers represented by Communication Workers Union (CWU) recently balloted for strike action, with one of their central demands being a call to reduce the work week to a 32 hour, four-day week.  The Greens joined the chorus, calling for a shorter working week as well as a guaranteed adequate income.  Even Mexico’s billionaire Carlos Slim advocated for a three-day workweek as a better work-life balance.

Capitalism is also triumphant because its effectively contained the social debate about inequality.  The Occupy Wall Street insurgency of 2011 reinserted inequality into the U.S. political vocabulary.  Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign acknowledgement inequality, positioning it as a key part of the current social struggle.  The recent Democratic-party electoral victories in governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, the Alabama senate race as well as gains in the Virginia House of Delegates may signal what’s to come in2018 midterm elections.  Then, showdowns at the local- and state-levels over the Republican’s tax plan may playout.  For now, the debate is over, the 1 percent won!

Trump is a great showman and, almost every day, through Tweets and press statements, plays a game of three-card-monte with the American public.  Combining the skills of P.T. Barnum’s circus shows and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, Trump seduces, entraps, his audience, offering an endless stream of venom as a clever game of distraction.  And the popular media, whether mainstream, right or left, promote distraction.  His fiction echoes in the latest news report, pundit talk show and sex scandals.  All’s serving to make Americans forget about inequality and that working people have been struggle for two centuries for a 40-hr workweek.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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