A Brief History of the “8 Hour Workday”

If you are one of those people who are asking what happened to the 40 hour work week, you can be sure you are not alone. According to recent pols the average American is working more than 44 hours a week, and some professions are demanding 60 hours as normal. Those basically familiar with labor history know that child labor and 16 hour days were common at one point in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Knowing a little about how we got to the 40 hour work week may help us get back to it.

One uncomfortable truth for some people is that the idea of a 40 hour work week was promoted by socialists in Europe, including Karl Marx. The first country to have the 40 hour work week put into law was Uruguay in 1915. The original idea of 8 hours was actually quite simple: divide the day into 3 equal parts. Working and sleeping 8 hours makes sense, and the other third was playing 8 hours. Whether we need to play 8 hours is up for grabs, but it can be fairly stated that more than a few people would be willing to trade off 2 or 3 playtime hours to make some extra money.

Of particular importance is what is popularly known as May Day. May 1st was the day in 1867 when workers objected to the state of Illinois passing a law that limited working days to 8 hours because the law also allows employers to contract with employees for a longer working day. Workers in Chicago went on strike to protest the law, and it didn’t take long for the protests to spread around the country and world to Europe.

Miners through the United Miners Union were the first to get an 8 hour day in 1898. The printing industry soon followed. Federal employees had an 8 hour work day since 1869, but keep in mind the Federal bureaucracy was significantly smaller than it is today.

You can thank Henry Ford of making the first significant stride in establishing the 40 hour work week, as he did so in his auto manufacturing plants in 1926, including the statement, “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either lost time or a class “privilege.” The American work ethic, noble an idea as it was, had been perceived as a matter of either if you didn’t work long hours you were lazy, or that leisure was something reserved for the upper social and economic classes.

A dozen years later, Congress passed the Fair Labor Act which restricted employers from anything more than a 44 hour work week – 8.8 hours a day. Only a year later that number was amended to what we now know as the 8 hour work day. Still, the existing law does not cover contract workers or temporary employees, and many people are either choosing contract work or are forced into temporary jobs where the protection is lost.

It is worth doing a comparison between the labor conditions that existed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s with today’s labor situation. The old labor market was a matter of necessity as many bodies were needed to increase industrial production to meet consumer demand. Today we have technology assuming the duties of jobs people once had to perform, with fewer low skill jobs available. People who are employed full time have to be willing to work longer hours because there is always a temporary worker who will be glad to have the extra hours. The more hours a full time employee works reduces the need for hiring additional workers to take up the slack.

Looking back at the history of the 40 hour work week may be an incentive to begin to slow down the oncoming train of increased working hours and fewer employees required to meet production standards and goals. Employees have been able to maintain the 40 hour work week for about 70 years, but the current trend in inching beyond even the 44 hour work week in 1938. Given the current state of technology, it can be asked whether employees can push back like they did on May Day, 1867.


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