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When America Came 'This Close' to Establishing a 30-Hour Workweek

Saturday, April 6, 2013, marks the 80th anniversary of a long-forgotten event in American history that bears remembering, especially by progressives.
 
 
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The April 15, 1933 issue of Newsweek, one of the first in the magazine’s history, contains a remarkable cover headline:  Bill cutting work week to 30 hours startles the nation. Indeed only nine days earlier, on April 6th, the Black-Connery Bill had passed in the United States Senate by a wide margin.  The bill fixed the official American work week at five days and 30 hours, with severe penalties for overtime work.  

In his new book, Free Time, labor historian, Benjamin Hunnicutt of the University of Iowa, explains that the bill originally had broad support as a means of increasing employment during the recession and maintaining full employment in the future.  

“We stand unflinchingly for the six-hour day and the five-day week in industry,” thundered AFL president William Green to a labor meeting in San Francisco that spring.  Franklin Roosevelt and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins also initially endorsed the idea, but the president buckled under opposition from the National Association of Manufacturers and dropped his support for the bill, which was then defeated in the House of Representatives.  

In its place, Roosevelt advocated job-creating New Deal spending and a forty-hour workweek limit, passed into law on October 24, 1938, as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

But we came that close to an officialthirty-hour workweek in America.  Close, but no cigar…

KELLOGG’S SIX-HOUR DAY

Nonetheless, many American companies did go to a 30-hour workweek during the depression, most prominently, the Kellogg Cereal Company, which established five-day, six-hour, shifts in December, 1930.  Kellogg’s and the workers split the pay loss resulting from the cut in hours; Kellogg’s initially paid his workers for seven hours a day, but upped that to the amount they had previously received for eight-hours work two years later, when he saw that hourly productivity had soared.  

In his earlier books, Work Without End and Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day, Hunnicutt reports that the measure added 400 new jobs to Kellogg’s Battle Creek, Michigan, work force, while improving family and community life dramatically.  After World War II, Kellogg’s began abandoning the six-hour shifts in favor of eight hours, largely because increasing benefit packages made it cheaper to hire few workers and keep them on the job longer.  But the end of the six-hour shifts didn’t come until 1985, when the last six-hour workers were told that if they didn’t accept the longer work days, Kellogg’s would leave Battle Creek.

The six-hours workers were angry but there was little they could do to prevent the change.  They held a “funeral,” complete with a mock coffin, for the six-hour day at Stan’s Place, a local Battle Creek pub, and Ina Sides, an African-American woman who had worked most of her life at the plant, wrote a eulogy:

Farewell, good friend, oh six hours!

Tis sad, but true,

Now you’re gone and we’re all so blue!

Get out your vitamins, give the doctor a call,

Cause old eight hours has got us all.

In 1992, I traveled with Hunnicutt to interview former thirty-hour week workers in Battle Creek.  They spoke movingly of the free time they had when they worked shorter hours—“you weren’t all wore out when you got home,” one man told me.  One couple, Chuck and Joy Blanchard, who had both worked at the plant, claimed that the six-hour day made Chuck a “feminist” long before the women’s movement.  He and his wife shared the housework and he was a “room parent” at his children’s school.

The Blanchards spoke to us about how crime had gone up and volunteering down in Battle Creek after the six-hour day ended, as people had less time to look out for their neighborhoods.  The Blanchards said they had little materially, but their lives, blessed with abundant leisure, were happier than those of young families today, who seem to have so much more stuff, but never enough time.

NO VACATION NATION

If the idea that the thirty-hour work week almost became the law of the land EIGHTY years ago comes as a shock, consider a New York Times headline on July 31, 1910:

HOW LONG SHOULD A MAN’S VACATION BE?  PRESIDENT TAFT SAYS EVERY ONE SHOULD HAVE THREE MONTHS

At a time when workers produced a tenth of what they do today, William Howard Taft, a conservative Republican, argued that all workers needed two or three months of holiday time each year to improve health, family connections and productivity.  Yet, more than a hundred years later, Americans average two weeks of paid vacation and a quarter of us get none at all.  

When the organization I represent, Take Back Your Time worked with Florida Congressman Alan Grayson to propose a very modest paid vacation law in 2009, we were practically accused of plotting the end of western civilization as we know it, and of “trying to turn our America into a 21st Century France,” as if we were going to force everyone to appreciate good food and wine.  All this, when the evidence shows that stress from overwork plays a role in five of the six leading causes of death in the US and that workers who don’t take vacations are twice as likely to have heart attacks as those who do.

How is it that the world’s richest country is one of only a handful (the other five are tiny and poor) of countries with no law requiring paid vacations (although residents of Puerto Rico are guaranteed 15 days off each year)?

How is it that we understood the need for shorter hours of work in 1910 and 1933 but have forgotten it today?

REMEMBRANCE AS A CALL TO ACTION

Progressives who want to end unemployment in a way that improves health and limits unsustainable economic growth should be advocating that America provide real vacation time and shorten working hours.  Although workers often say they’d prefer more money to more time, the evidence shows they appreciate the time off when they get it.  

A recent experiment with a compressed four-day workweek (albeit with ten hour days) was extremely popular in Utah.  

More importantly, in Amador County, California, workers voted 71 to 29 percent to retain a reduced work-week of four nine-hour days rather than return to a five-day, forty hour week with higher pay. See “Life Away From the Rat-Race: Why One Group of Workers Decided to Cut Their Own Hours and Pay” (AlterNet, July 2, 2012).

Undoubtedly, for poor workers, shortened hours would need to be combined with a higher living wage minimum, as they would otherwise take on extra jobs to make up for reductions in pay that usually accompany shorter work-time.  But in fact, there is no reason why a nation (the US) where the median worker has seen almost no pay increases since the 1970s despite a doubling of worker productivity, should not reduce working hours without a pay cut, at least for the middle-class and the poor.  

Eighty years ago, the American Federation of Labor and the United States Senate understood that the healthiest and most sustainable way to reduce unemployment was to sharply reduce working hours.  The anniversary of the Black-Connery’s bill passage in the Senate marks a time to pause and ask why progressives aren’t raising this issue again.

 
John de Graaf is a filmmaker and co-author of "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic" and “What’s The Economy For Anyway?”
 
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