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(A Shorter Workweek in the 1980s)






According to the Book of Genesis the history of the shorter workweek began with the creation itself. The scripture reads: “On the sixth day God completed all the work he had been doing, and on the seventh day he ceased from all his work. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on that day he ceased from all the work he had set to do.”

God intended that mankind should imitate this rhythmic pattern of work and rest. Therefore, among the Ten Commandments which Moses gave to the people of Israel is the fifth one which states: “Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. You have six days to labor and to do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; that day you shall not do any work.”

It is possible to interpret this religious instruction in either of two ways. One way is to focus upon the letter of the law and turn the commandment into a weight on the backs of working people. “Do not work on the seventh day” becomes translated “Do work on all of the remaining six days.” Thus, when the five-day week was being introduced in the United States during the 1920s, some businessmen opposed the change because of “religious convictions.”

John Edgerton, chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers, argued: “ ‘Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work.’ So reads the fifth of the great commandments and for sixty centuries it has been accepted as the divinely prescribed standard of economic effort. It is the perfectly fixed basis of human achievement and social contentment ... Notwithstanding the unremitting assaults upon it as a curse to the human race, it cannot be reasoned or legislated out of existence or into an unworthy position without disastrous consequences. These constant attempts to amend the decalogue and to adapt by alterations the moral law to the appetites developed by loose and easy living constitute the outstanding peril to our unprecedented prosperity.”

Judge Elbert Gary, chairman of U.S. Steel, was another business leader who quoted the scriptural passage, “Six days shalt thou work”, commenting: “The reason it didn’t say seven days is that the seventh is a day of rest, and that’s enough.”

The hypocrisy in this Bible-thumping was plain to see. In Gary’s case, the mills at U.S. Steel were designed for continuous operation which company officials said required two 12-hour shifts a day and work on Saturdays and Sundays. A bitter strike took place over the this practice in 1919. Although the strikers were defeated, their effort prompted the Commission of the Interchurch World Movement to issue a report which criticized the American steel industry, and U.S. Steel in particular, for scheduling excessive hours of work.

The report attracted attention in government. Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce in the Harding Administration, considered the long hours to be “a black spot on American industry.” The Secretary of Labor, James J. Davis, declared: “The 12-hour day and the 7-day week in American industry must go ... Society cannot afford to permit any industry to unmake men in order to manufacture any product.”

Together, these two gentlemen persuaded President Harding to use his influence to get the practice changed. For over a year Messrs. Harding, Davis, and Hoover badgered, threatened, and cajoled executives of the major steel companies to end the 12-hour day. Finally, on August 23, 1923, in the same issue which headlined the untimely death of President Warren G. Harding, the New York Times carried a short announcement on an inside page to the effect that directors of the American Iron and Steel Institute had approved plans for the “total elimination” of the 12-hour workday.

The other way to interpret the Fifth Commandment, and surely the correct way, is to regard the Sabbath as a time reserved for the worship of God. The distinction runs through the Judeo-Christian tradition between the sacred and the secular, between the competing claims of God and Mammon. Work is clearly perceived to be within man’s secular domain. Working on the Sabbath was considered a sin by the Hebrew society. What was done with one’s time on the other six days was of lesser consequence.

Nothing in the teachings of Moses or Jesus requires, or even suggests, that a person should spend a certain number of days or hours working for an employer. The spirit of the Fifth Commandment is, perhaps, that the dividing line between the hours of work and hours of leisure should be drawn on the basis of one’s priorities, whether to prefer material things or “things of the spirit.” The length of the U.S. workweek would depend upon our nation’s priorities, whether to seek improved living standards and increased GNP, on one hand, or a fuller and richer spiritual life, on the other.

Those who base long hours of work upon a Christian doctrine or a religiously inspired work ethic are taking their cue, not from Jesus but from John Calvin or perhaps the Apostle Paul who wrote: “The man who will not work shall not eat.” Paul’s words represented a practical accommodation to a crisis in the early Christian community whose economy was not originally based on work but on property donations from converts. Jesus himself lured the Disciples out of the work force, so to speak, by making them “fishers of men” rather than fishermen. He sent the Disciples to preach the Gospel throughout the towns of Israel, instructing them to take “no bread no pack, no money in their belts” but be received into local households for their daily meals.

Jesus said this specifically about work: “Consider how the lilies grow in the fields; they do not work, they do not spin; and yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his splendor was not attired like one of these. But if that is how God clothes the grass in the fields, which is there today and tomorrow is thrown on the stove, will he not the more clothe you? How little faith you have! No, do not ask anxiously, ‘What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What shall we wear?’ All these are things for the heathen to run after, not for you.”

Leisure originally did not mean idle pastimes or frivolous pursuits but was associated with religious celebrations as in religious festivals or “holy days”. Indeed the struggle to gain more free time for those purposes is closely related to the establishment of religion itself.

Moses began his religious career as one so filled with outrage at the excessive work required of his fellow Hebrews that he murdered an Egyptian foreman. Returned from a sojourn in the desert, Moses and his brother Aaron approached Pharaoh with this demand: “These are the words of the Lord the God of Israel: ‘Let my people go so that they may keep my pilgrim-feast in the wilderness.’” Pharaoh’s reply reflects the timeless attitude of bosses and administrators: “Moses and Aaron, what do you mean by distracting the people from their work? Back to your labors! Your people already outnumber the native Egyptians; yet you would have them stop working!’”

Pharaoh called the Hebrews a “lazy” people and ordered them on no account to reduce their daily production of bricks. It took five plagues and several miracles for Moses to persuade Pharaoh to reconsider his position, three more plagues and a parting of the Red Sea waters for the Hebrew people finally to escape that work-obsessed Egyptian society and begin their journey to the Promised Land.



Religious festivals and holidays are not limited to the Jewish or Christian traditions. Reportedly, the pagan holidays of Rome were so numerous that the average Roman worker worked about the same number of hours in a year as Americans do today. Professor Harold Wilensky pointed out: “In the old Roman calendar, out of 355 days nearly one third (109) were marked as ... unlawful for judicial and political business. In the last two centuries of the republic, festival days were stretched to accommodate more spectacles and public games. The Roman passion for holidays reached its climax in the middle of the fourth century when days off numbered 175. If we assume a 12-hour day, which is probably on the high side, total working time would be only about 2,160 hours a year.”

The pagan flavoring of those holidays made them a particular target of criticism by the Christians who followed. An American businessman who opposed the 5-day week declared: “The multiplication of holidays always is a sign of decadence in any country.” One could argue, though, that it was the weakening of religious practice and belief that caused many of these holidays to turn sour rather than that the holidays themselves were corrupting.

In time, Christian holidays replaced the pagan celebrations. A series of more or less pious observances took place throughout the year in medieval Europe. But now, with a new slackening of religion, the Christian holidays are themselves being supplanted by the modern “commercial holidays”. Christmas has become a time when Santa Claus brings presents to children and the stores are crowded with holiday shoppers. St. Valentine’s Day is an occasion to buy greeting cards or flowers for a loved one. Some holidays are strictly commercial: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Secretary’s Day, Nurse’s Day, Grandparents Day, and its ill-fated predecessor “Sweetest Day” (originated by a Chicago advertising agency representing the candy industry whose theme was to bring a box of candy to a senior citizen).

The sign of a commercial holiday, as opposed to a religious or national holiday, is two-fold: first, that it not involve giving workers additional time off from work and, second, that it requires celebrators of the holiday to spend money in the stores to show their love or personal regard for another person, with the implication that failure to do this indicates a weakening of their relationship.

With the onslaught of commercialism, the religious Sabbath is almost gone. The Christian day of worship, Sunday, features good television viewing, professional athletic contests, and shopping and driving around town, as well as attending church. Even though most of the Kresge family, principal owners of K-Mart, are born-again Christians, they too find it necessary to keep their stores open on Sundays to meet the competition. Paid vacations make no pretense of commemorating any event except perhaps the date when one was hired, which determines how many weeks the worker gets. In our times, leisure is not what it once was under the influence of religion.

In understanding how working hours are reduced, it should be recognized that the trend has not been in a single direction. Dimly, we assume that primitive man was a slave to work and it is only because of mechanical inventions, accumulated capital, increased use of energy, and advanced forms of social and economic organization that people today can enjoy leisure without impoverishment.

That conception is not quite true. Professor Wilensky points out: “In the perspective of several centuries, time at work increased before it decreased. The secular decline in hours and days of work is greatly exaggerated by the usual comparison of gross daily or weekly averages with those of the ‘take off’ period of rapid economic growth in England, France, and America - a time of horrendous working schedules and conditions. Estimates of annual hours and days of work for populations of earlier times yield less confidence in greater progress and surely suggest the absence of a unilinear downward trend in the past several centuries.”

In a primitive hunting or agricultural economy, working hours are not separated from the time which is devoted to other activities. Labor is not bought and sold in units of time. The activities that we would regard as work follow a daily or seasonal cycle. Normally work time would be limited to the daylight hours or to times when crops might be planted or harvested. Wladimir Woytinsky noted that “in the early Middle Ages, scarcely more than 48 hours on the average constituted a week’s work; the 8-hour day was the normal working day. Legend attributes to King Alfred the Great the saying: ‘Eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours play, make a just and healthy day.’ This condition persisted in the following centuries under the rule of the guilds. For example, Parisian wire drawers during the 13th century received 30-day annual vacations and normally worked fewer than 200 days in a year.

Woytinsky observed that working hours began to increase in the late middle ages as political power became concentrated at the national level. Intending to increase the nation’s wealth, a royal statute enacted during the reign of England’s King Henry VII prescribed a 12-hour work day during the summer months. In the Elizabethan period, this was shortened somewhat. But it was the development of industrial and commercial empires that inspired the greatest lengthening of hours.

Woytinsky described the process: “The growth of capitalism during the second half of the eighteenth century brought an unprecedented lengthening of the working day. The increasing use of expensive machinery; the establishment of large factories whose owners and employees did not work side by side as did the guild masters and their journeymen; the new ideology of the entrepreneurs who repudiated traditional economic restraints and improved lighting arrangements such as gaslight introduced into factories at the close of the eighteenth century - all these furnished important drives in the direction of longer hours ... No labor statistics are available for this period, but it is known that about 1800 a working day of 14 hours was customary, one of 16 hours attracted little attention, and only a working day of 17 or 18 hours was considered an abuse. Such excessively long hours were worked not only by men but also by women and children whose labor was used on a particularly large scale in the textile factories.”

The labor movement developed in reaction to such conditions. Consistently its goal in the early days was to reduce the length of the work day. This is a part of American history which we lately seem to have forgotten. As early as 1791, carpenters in Philadelphia went on strike for a 10-hour day demanding extra pay for hours worked beyond that. Caulkers and ship builders in New York City struck for a 10-hour day in 1806. As the winds of Jacksonian democracy stirred popular expectations, the 10-hour movement picked up stead especially in Boston and Philadelphia.

In those days, the customary work schedule was “sun up to sun down”, which meant that the length of the work day varied from 7 1/2 hours in the winter to 12 hours in the middle of summer. In 1822, Philadelphia millwrights and mechanics attempted unsuccessfully to establish a system of uniform 10-hour days. However, mechanics of the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1835 waged a similar campaign which resulted in a breakthrough for working people. In place of the seasonal schedule, the U.S. Government agreed to allow the navy-yard mechanics to work 10 hours a day throughout the year. The National Trade Union, convened in Philadelphia in 1836, petitioned the President of the United States to apply this schedule to all Federal yards. Their request was granted on March 31, 1840, when President Martin Van Buren issued an executive order limiting the work of all mechanics and laborers in the Executive Branch to “the number of hours prescribed by the 10-hour system.”

This agreement, which was the first significant action undertaken by the Federal government with respect to labor, stood as a landmark of social progress for many years. Private employers generally stayed with the “sun-up to sun-down” arrangement. Attempts were made in several of the state legislatures to limit the hours which were required by businesses incorporated in those states but the efforts failed largely because the laws usually allowed employers to negotiate specific contracts with workers for longer hours. Workers who refused to sign were not hired and, in many instances, were blacklisted by employers in an area.

The trade unions were loosely organized during this period and were no match for employers in the use of legal and political tactics. Nevertheless, working people did continue to petition their government for shorter hours. Their arguments stressed that increased leisure would give them a greater opportunity for education and self-improvement and would enable them to become better citizens.

Their religious bent was evident at the Ten Hours State Convention held in Boston in 1852 where the following resolution was adopted: “We believe that it is the intention of the Great Creator to shorten the time of man’s toil and to extend the opportunities for moral, social, and intellectual improvement, by the introduction of labor-saving machinery and by the power and mechanical uses of water, steam, and electricity ... If it be God’s will to abridge man’s daily labor to eight, six, or even less hours, we ought cheerfully to submit and say - ‘Thy will be done.’“



The 10-hour work day spread slowly through American industry in the middle of the 19th Century. By 1860, it has become the standard schedule for most skilled mechanics. During the Civil war years, however, a self-taught machinist and social reformer named Ira Steward aroused considerable public support for the concept of an 8-hour working day. Steward was inspired by the belief that American workers might limit themselves to eight hours of work each day while receiving the same pay as before and that they might bring about this by passing a law or simply refusing en masse to work more hours.

Steward’s ideas had great influence but they never achieved the practical success that he and his supporters anticipated. Bills were passed in Congress to enact an eight-hour day and they actually passed in six state legislatures. However, as the organizing committee of the Eight Hours movement itself admitted in 1867, “for all practical intentions and purposes they might as well have never been placed on the statute books, and can only be described as frauds on the labouring class.” In the economic slump which followed the Civil War, employers too easily evaded the requirements of these laws. Legislation alone could not accomplish what the economy was not ready to receive. With that realization, the movement ran out of steam.

For all its failings, the Eight Hours movement gave workers a taste of the practical difficulties involved in reducing work time and a desire to deal more effectively with the economic forces that governed their lives. The grand political schemes persisted but, more importantly, workers learned to organize by industry and trade in response to a similar structure of organization among employers. Strikes were called to bring economic pressure to bear.

Always the struggle to achieve shorter hours was foremost among labor’s objectives. It was no exaggeration, then, that AFL-CIO President George Meany commented at a labor symposium on shorter hours in 1956: “In effect, the progress towards a shorter work day and a shorter work week is a history of the labor movement itself.”

The drive for an eight-hour day began to achieve its first tangible results in the 1880s. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada adopted a resolution at its convention in 1884 that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1,1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout the district that they so direct their laws as to conform to the resolution by the time reached.”

This goal had a galvanizing effect upon American workers who smoked “Eight-Hour tobacco”, wore “Eight-Hour shoes”, and sang the Eight-Hour song”:

We want to feel the sunshine;
We want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure that God has willed it,
And we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces
From ship yard, shop, and mill:
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,
Eight hours for what we will!”

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions planned to win the 8-hour day by means of a general strike. The strike was set for May 1, 1886. This effort had an enormous effect upon union membership and upon negotiations with employers. An estimated 300,000 American workers took part in the May Day strike as a result of which 50,000 workers received the 8-hour day and another 150,000 workers won it without striking.

Unfortunately, at one of the mass rallies attending this event, a bomb was thrown in the Haymarket Square in Chicago which killed seven policemen and four other persons and badly damaged the reputation of its sponsors. But, as one organization declined, another rose to take its place. This group, the American Federation of Labor, was more businesslike and less political.

Although like its predecessors it focused its eight-hours campaign upon May Day - May 1, 1890 - The American Federation of Labor chose not to pursue a general strike but instead to seek its objective in one industry first, relying upon one of its constituent unions to carry the ball for the entire movement. The Carpenters Union was the one selected. Under the able leadership of its president, Peter J. McGuire, this union aggressively organized and fought for the 8-hour day. Within a fairly short time, it had won this benefit for carpenters in 36 cities, and another 32,000 persons received a 9-hour day. Following that triumph, the AFL chose other affiliates to pursue the struggle: the mine workers, the bakers union, the typographical-workers union. These others, too, sought shorter hours, with varying degrees of success.

During this struggle which lasted well into the 20th Century, organized labor was gradually shifting the emphasis of is campaign away from arguments concerning the physical strain of long hours or the cultural or civic advantages of more leisure toward a strictly economic analysis of the problem. Union spokesmen now argued that working hours had to be reduced to avoid mass unemployment.

The AFL’s first president, Samuel Gompers, sounded the new theme: “So long as there is one man who seeks employment and cannot find it, the hours of work are too long.” This approach, however, presupposed a different set of bargaining conditions than in the past. Labor had always pressed its demands most forcefully in periods of prosperity when employers could afford to grant more concessions; but now its appeals to “share the work” were made most often in hard times, a less opportune occasion.

Labor’s fight for a shorter workweek was waged through a series of strikes and mass demonstrations in which concessions were won one inch at a time. Ultimately, the workers had to persuade those in positions of economic or political power. Because the leader of government and business usually belonged to a different socioeconomic class, it was hard to reach their hearts and minds through humanitarian appeals. However, when a breakthrough occurred, progress could be swift.

In England, the enactment of a Ten-Hour bill in Parliament in the 1840s owed its success primarily to the workers having enlisted the support of one Lord Ashley who had never set foot in a factory before when he agreed to support their cause. Although a man of philanthropic inclination, it is reported that Lord Ashley hesitated to accept the invitation of a representative of the Short-Time Committees to become their Parliamentary spokesman because of “the sacrifice of leisure, being cold-shouldered by friends who took the opposite view, perpetual worry and anxiety, constant work, running here and there about the country, mixing with people of a very different type from those they had been accustomed to, many of them of the most unpleasant character.” Lord Ashley discussed these many difficulties with his wife. When he had finished, Lady Ashley responded: “It is your duty and the consequences we must leave. Go forward, and to victory!" Thus began a most fruitful legislative career.

Quite another type of powerful backer was Henry Ford. Ford was a businessman who delighted in defying the conventional wisdom. He “gave away” money to his employees by paying well above the going rate and steadily cut the price of the Model T but in the process became one of the richest men on earth. Henry Ford was also an impassioned believer in shorter hours of work. A self-styled Wilsonian idealist, he personally urged Woodrow Wilson to adopt the slogan, “out of the shops in eight hours”, for the 1916 Presidential campaign.



In 1926, Henry Ford put his own employees on a 5-day, 40-hour workweek with no reduction in weekly pay. This was part of Ford’s revolutionary business philosophy which he and company spokesmen were quick to tell the world: “The country is ready for the 5-day week. It is bound to come through all industry. In adopting it ourselves, we are putting it into effect in about 50 industries for we are coal miners, iron miners, lumbermen, and so on. The short week is bound to come because without it the country will not be able to absorb its production and stay prosperous. The harder we crowd business for time, the more efficient it becomes. The more well-paid leisure workmen get, the greater become their wants. These wants soon become needs. Well-managed business pays high wages and sells at low prices. Its workmen have the leisure to enjoy life and the wherewithal with which to finance that enjoyment.”

Labor leaders generally applauded Ford’s initiative. Many others, and not just business competitors, did not. In some circles it became a popular theme to “debunk” Henry Ford. The renowned theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who was living in Detroit at the time, charged that “the five-day week was largely a device for concealing or for affecting the lower production which the decreased demand for Ford cars necessitated.” About that time, the Ford plants were being shut down to convert from the Model T to the Model A in response to competition from General Motors. Rev. Niebuhr castigated Ford for failing to provide old-age pensions, and he would have preferred to shorter hours a system of unemployment insurance.

Niebuhr’s preferences came to pass during the Great Depression when the nation soured on progressive businessmen like Henry Ford and, of course, Herbert Hoover. Previously, the federal government had played a limited role in the economy. There were limited moves to regulate working hours such as the Eight-Hour Law of 1892 which established a maximum 8-hour workday for laborers and mechanics employed by the U.S. Government and the Adamson Act of 1916 which gave the 8-hour day to railroad workers.

But with the advent of hard times, public confidence in the old order quickly eroded. There were hunger marches and unemployment soared to frightening levels. The AFL came out in favor of the five-day week. Accordingly, in December 1932 a bill was introduced in Congress by Senator Hugo Black of Alabama which would have banned from foreign or interstate commerce goods which were produced in establishments requiring more than 30 hours of work per week.

This bill passed the U.S. Senate but, due to opposition from the in-coming Roosevelt Administration, it was buried by the House Rules Committee. Nevertheless, in the course of debating the 30-hour bill which organized labor was supporting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce made a counterproposal supporting a 40-hour week. “The acceptance of the principle of the shortened workweek by both trade unionists and management provided the common understanding for the passage of the NIRA in 1933,” Solomon Barkin of the AFL recalled.

The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) became initially the centerpiece of New Deal legislation for lifting the nation out of the Depression. Under the sign of the “Blue Eagle”, its administrative arm, the National Recovery Administration (NRA), undertook a massive campaign to stabilize employment. The NRA instituted industrial codes setting the level of wages and hours in each industry. Industry boards which included representatives from both labor and management were responsible for setting the standards.

The labor representatives pushed for shorter hours and in many cases prevailed. Usually the workweek was cut from 48 to 44 or 40 hours although some unions such as the Fur Workers managed to obtain a 35-hour week with no reduction in pay. In many industries, however, slack demand brought hours to a level below what either labor or management wanted. Shortened workweeks were prevalent in the construction, rubber, garment, and printing industries, among others. Although the U.S. Supreme Court declared the NRA program unconstitutional in May 1935, its codes are said to have “effected the most universal reduction in working hours ever achieved in the United States.”

Afterwards, the Roosevelt administration moved cautiously in this area seeking the same economic goals while respecting the legalities. The U.S. Supreme Court had found the NRA program much too broad to be authorized through Congress’s implied powers under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. The Federal government had no express authority to regulate wages and hours in the private economy. It did have the power to set rules for its own operation and for bidding on federal contracts. It also had the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” This latter constitutional provision, known as the “interstate-commerce clause”, was to become the foundation of most shorter-workweek legislation at the federal level.

First, however, a law was passed which set labor standards for federal contractors. Enacted in 1936, the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act prescribed a 40-hour workweek for businesses which furnished more than $10,000 a year in materials, supplies, articles, or equipment to the Federal government and provided overtime penalties to be paid when weekly hours exceeded that level. The Walsh-Healey Act also prescribed a standard 8-hour week day.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had promised his Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, when she agreed to take the job, that his administration might support more general legislation to establish a minimum wage and maximum hours and curtail child labor. On that basis, Perkins had asked lawyers at the Department of Labor to draft such a bill which would meet the test of constitutionality. She kept the draft copy locked in the bottom drawer of her desk. Once the furor over the Supreme Court “packing” had subsided, the President asked Secretary Perkins: “What happened to that nice unconstitutional bill you had tucked away?” The bill which she pulled from her desk drawer became, after a period of negotiation and revision, the Black-Connery bill. Passed by Congress and signed by President Roosevelt on June 25, 1938, this bill become known as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Another name for it is the Federal Wage and Hours Law.

The importance of the Fair Labor Standards Act lies not in the reduction in hours which it was directly able to achieve - many workers during the Depression were not even working 40 hours a week - but in the legal framework which it established for the implementation and enforcement of the hours standard. Building upon techniques embodied in the Walsh-Healey Act, it provided for a flexible system of enforcement through overtime penalties which were to be imposed upon employers for each hour of work they scheduled beyond the standard.

Although it generally covered the employees of businesses engaged in foreign and interstate commerce, not all such employees were covered. Managerial and professional workers were “exempt”. So were workers in retail trade, Class I railroads, most branches of the service and construction industries, and agriculture. Mainly this law covered production workers in mining and manufacturing although other categories of workers were added in subsequent amendments. The original law provided for the new standard to be introduced gradually, starting with 44 hours in the first year until, in October 1940, the 40-hour week became effective.

This brings us into the modern era of labor legislation. Looking back on the Great Depression from the standpoint of favoring a shorter workweek, we see that the experience was both fortunate and unfortunate. It was fortunate because the nation reacted sensibly to a crisis in achieving a substantial reduction in hours with a minimum of strikes or blood shed. It was unfortunate, however, for the “lessons” which economists have improperly drawn from the experience and for the disastrous alternatives which have been recommended.

That other piece of landmark legislation passed during the Depression, the Social Security Act created a system of unemployment insurance and a retirement program which, greatly expanded, have turned the nation into a welfare state. World War II, another outgrowth of the Depression, has saddled us with a permanently swollen defense budget. Economic resources have been transferred on a grand scale from the private to the public sectors, feeding bureaucracy.

The “wrong lesson” which economists drew from the Great Depression was to associate shorter working hours with cyclical declines in the demand for labor. To be sure, the Depression represented a problem with the business cycle which could have been treated more expeditiously through other measures. Economists, however, have seized upon this to pronounce a sweeping condemnation of the shorter-workweek approach as being fallacious Their very concepts and definitions have made shorter work hours a negative development as when longer workweeks are taken as a lead indicator of an economic upswing. They simply refuse to accord leisure any economic value but have instead guided the nation into a protracted slide toward stagnation and decay.

So now we are faced with a need to reduce working hours combined with an economic ideology which actively prevents this. After a long disruption in the normal progression of industry, we also have little recent experience of how work hours can be reduced on an economy-wide scale. And yet, history does provide numerous examples of this which point to several different paths. In the remainder of this chapter and this book we will sift through the alternatives, discuss choices, and try to form a conclusion.



Some people argue that working hours are a matter for the employer to determine or for labor and management to decide through collective bargaining. That point of view was expressed by Dr. Paul McCracken, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, in a letter dated February 10, 1971: “Some employers and employes have agreed on such an arrangement (shorter working hours), and it is undoubtedly sensible in many cases. Unless there is a bilateral arrangement, however, there is no way we can force those who are fully employed to reduce their workweek, lower their income and thereby provide employment for their co-workers, at least without excessively detailed and inefficient interference with business operations.”

Should government introduce a shorter workweek or should this matter be left to individual employers and unions as Dr. McCracken suggests? The case for leaving it up to the employers and unions rests upon several arguments: (a) that government has no right to become involved in this matter, (b) that it would increase government bureaucracy, (c) that large-scale decision making is imprudent, and (d) that government would further be encroaching upon our economic liberties. Briefly, those arguments might be answered:

(a) Government is already involved in the regulation of hours through the Fair Labor Standards Act and other laws. It has the right and also the responsibility to take effective steps to reduce unemployment.

(b) The Wages and hours Division is already established within the U.S. Department of Labor. Employers already keep track of overtime hours. Merely to change a few numbers in the law - set a standard of 35 hours instead of 40 and require overtime to be paid at double time instead of time and one half - should create no additional paperwork or record-keeping requirements.

(c) There is certainly no objection to local experiments or initiatives to shorten the workweek if this could be done without jeopardizing anyone’s “business climate”. To the extent, however, that unemployment is a national problem, it may require a correspondingly large-scale solution.

(d) How much economic freedom does an unemployed worker have? Is it “government coercion” to give workers the right to refuse overtime assignments without being fired? When there is not enough work to go around, the employee who works excessive hours is substantively depriving another of a job. The state has a right to regulate employment in the community’s best interests just as it has a right to limit deer hunting when the herds are thin.

Those who argue against government intervention in this matter are assuming that business and labor will do something on their own. The sad fact is that, although free to reduce working hours, neither business nor labor has done much about this in the past forty years. Most union contracts which call for a shorter work schedule were written decades ago. Business flirts with compressed workweeks and flexible working hours but the idea of shortening hours to help the unemployed is unappealing to most businessmen.

The problem is, basically, that neither business nor organized labor represents the unemployed worker. Business is organized to earn a profit and pay salaries to its employees. The trade union represents its own members - people who are already employed or have been employed in the recent past. The high-seniority employees are more interested in better retirement benefits and improved health insurance than in shorter hours which would help workers in coming years. Therefore, unemployed people may not find that their interests are being adequately represented by business or labor when these two parties sit down together at the bargaining table. They must appeal to the conscience of the community and to government, the institutional embodiment of all the people.



Some may argue on principle that state and local governments, being closer to the people, more closely represent people’s economic and social interests. Others who are idealists contend that the unemployment problem has international repercussions and should be treated by government on this level. Still others, including me, believe that the solution lies in Washington,D.C. Which approach is correct? All of the above may be, in a sense. The difference lies less in principle, perhaps, than in the difference between past, present and future.

In the past, state and local governments were an appropriate object of petitioning by workers who sought shorter hours. After all, state governments had chartered the corporations and had the right to regulate them in the public interest. This approach was taken in several of the New England states during the 1840s and 1850s. It was largely unsuccessful because of the influence which corporate employers had with the state legislatures and because the larger firms could play one locality off against another.

Today, with improved transportation and communications, business is increasingly conducted across state lines so that the forces that worked against state regulation a century ago are ever more compelling. Ours is an age of heavy advertising campaigns by state and local governments to attract new industry, of demands by business firms for special tax breaks and concessions to keep jobs in a community, and of floating tax-exempt industrial revenue bonds to finance private commercial ventures. A state-imposed shorter workweek would be a red herring to business. Under the circumstances, then, to contemplate such regulation at this level of government is quite unrealistic.

For better or worse, the present responsibility for treating unemployment belongs to the federal government. The U.S. Department of Labor defines who is unemployed and compiles the related statistics. The Full Employment Act of 1946 imposed upon the federal government the responsibility of managing the national economy in ways that would maximize employment opportunities. That responsibility was confirmed by the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978, popularly known as the Humphrey-Hawkins bill. It was the most important piece of social legislation enacted during the Carter administration. The Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act of 1936, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the Work Hours Act of 1962, and other laws which were enacted by powers granted to Congress under the interstate-commerce clause of the Constitution assign to the U.S. Government clear authority to regulate working hours for the purpose of controlling unemployment.

The Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978 establishes a national goal of reducing the overall rate of unemployment to 4% by 1983, and to 3% for adult workers, while holding price increases in check. The law does not specify the means by which those goals should be met. Even though the shorter-workweek approach is not yet national policy, it is consistent with the Humphrey-Hawkins bill’s legislative intent.

Indeed, the late U.S. Senator, Hubert Humphrey, wrote a letter to the author in May 1976: “I believe your proposal for regulating hours as a technique for dealing with unemployment is a good one. I have received this suggestion from other people in the course of the Joint Economic Committee hearings around the country and have asked the committee staff to investigate its feasibility. They are doing that at the present time and we may well want to propose something in this area in the future.”

Some government officials may watch the 1983 deadline approach, having no intention of doing anything about our high rates of unemployment. The U.S. Government has not always acted responsibly in meeting its social and economic obligations. Its policymakers have allowed the mechanism of overtime penalties under the Fair Labor Standards Act to cease to be an effective disincentive for scheduling overtime - in part because of costs which it has itself added to employment.

Nevertheless, the public expects the government in Washington to pursue an effective policy to reduce unemployment. Its patience with the current remedies is nearly exhausted. In the last two Presidential elections, the voters have refused to allow the unemployment problem to be swept under the carpet by incumbents even though unemployed people themselves comprise less than ten percent of the electorate.

With each passing year, the demographic and political factors are becoming more favorably aligned to seek a solution through shorter hours. President Nixon gave 18-to-20-year-olds the vote. Racial minorities have come of age politically. Working women are becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Economically and culturally, the country is ready for a shorter workweek. Still, the moment of truth has not yet arrived in Washington, D.C. When it comes and the “slumbering giant” of our nation’s economic institutions opens its eyes to the present realities, all the necessary elements will be there for solving the unemployment problem through Federal legislation to shorten the workweek.

Even so, the question might be asked whether, perhaps, federal action is no longer appropriate because the economy functions increasingly on an international scale. Could not the multinational corporations relocate their manufacturing facilities in another country if they found U.S. labor laws not to their liking? Look what happened with the Zenith Corporation which had long boasted that its television sets were “made in USA”. One fine day in 1977, Zenith executives announced that they had decided to shut down the company’s domestic plants, lay off one quarter of its work force, and start building Zenith products in Mexico and Taiwan. Though dramatic, this was by no means an isolated incident.

Foreign imports pose a substantial and growing threat to manufacturing industries in this country. The imports include not only finished products that bear the recognizable brand name of a foreign firm but also the semi-finished components of products manufactured by U.S. companies. So-called “production sharing” is on the rise. More of the unskilled factory work is being done in low-wage countries. Employers are frankly out to minimize labor costs in this way. If U.S. workers are demanding too much, then the South Koreans, Mexicans, Brazilians, Hong Kong or Taiwan or Singapore or mainland Chinese will do it for less. These people are not asking for shorter workweeks. Some of them are willing to work 50 or 60 hours a week for as little as 20 cents an hour - and darn thankful for the chance, too!

It would be a mistake to minimize or ignore the considerable danger to U.S. jobs and to the economy in general which such developments represent. A the same time, it would be equally wrong to accept the view that American workers must bow down to cut-throat international competition for labor and allow our labor standards to be dragged down to the level of the underdeveloped countries.

The U.S. government has been less than zealous in protecting its workers’ interests. There seems to be as much concern for allowing American shoppers to buy manufactured goods at low prices as for preserving U.S. jobs. To adopt a policy of free trade while other nations pursue protectionist measures is to allow them to export their unemployment to the United States although something is gained with respect to inflation. Such are our national priorities these days.

I would propose a protectionist policy aimed at helping American workers without triggering retaliation by our leading economic competitors. Why not establish a system of protective tariffs based upon the prevailing level of wages and hours in the nation from which the goods were imported? The higher the labor standards, the lower the tariff. The lower the standards, the higher the protective tariff.

Let those manufacturers, including U.S. companies, who produce goods abroad in sweat-shop conditions and pay coolie wages pay a premium for the privilege of selling in the U.S. market while depriving Americans of their jobs. In such a way, foreign producers would be encouraged to improve their labor standards more quickly while American workers would have a certain protection during the period of transition towards reduced inequality of incomes and working hours.

The world community of nations is well aware of the problems posed by disparities between the economically developed and underdeveloped regions. It is seeking cooperative solutions. Currently under discussion is the concept of a “new international economic order” that involves treating unemployment and other such problems on a global scale. The matter of reduced working hours has entered into that discussion.

Assessing its prospects, the Director-General of the International Labor Office, Francis Blanchard, wrote in the October 1979 issue of ILO Information: “The road ahead is still long. Nevertheless, it seems that substantial progress can be made to shorten working hours if it is based on three considerations. The first is that the economic difficulties point clearly to the need to tackle the problem in a regional and international framework so as to reduce the effect of inflation and balance of payments. The second is that rather than pursue a uniform reduction to 35 hours, realism and wisdom point to a diversified approach by branch of activity and exploring all ways of regulating work time. Thirdly, it is essential to rely to the maximum degree possible on employers’ and workers’ organizations to advance solutions through negotiations. These should be encouraged by governments and, if need be, helped. The ILO stands ready to contribute its expertise and assistance.”



In October 1919, shortly after the International Labor Organization was created as a part of the League of Nations, an international labor conference was held in Washington, D.C., attempting to coordinate the various national laws relating to the hours of work. At this conference, the goal of a 6-day, 48-hour workweek was firmly established and other important decisions were made. However, the conference failed to live up to its potential because several of the leading powers refused to ratify the agreements.

In subsequent years, the ILO has continued to formulate and promote improved labor standards both within the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations. The 40-hour workweek became an official goal of this body as early as in 1935. On June 26, 1962, it adopted the “Reduction of Hours of Work Recommendation” (Number 116) which called for the 40-hour week to be implemented in all industrial economies without delay.

Even though the United States adopted this standard for manufacturing production workers four decades ago, this ILO recommendation is of interest in indicating favored techniques for reducing the workweek. The document reads:

(1) Each member should formulate and pursue a national policy designed to promote by methods appropriate to national conditions and practice and to conditions in each industry the adoption of the principle of the progressive reduction of normal hours of work in conformity with Paragraph 4 ...

(3) The principle of the progressive reduction of normal hours of work may be given effect through laws or regulations, collective agreements, or arbitration awards, by a combination of these various means, or in any other manner consistent with national practice, as may be most appropriate to national conditions and to the needs of each branch of activity.

(4) Normal hours of work should be progressively reduced, when appropriate, with a view to attaining the social standard indicated in the Preamble of this Recommendation without any reduction in the wages of the workers as at the time hours of work are reduced.”

Paragraph 4 means in other words, that when the workweek is reduced to 40 hours, employers should not cut weekly wages. The recommendation supports a variety of techniques to reduce working hours, which are “consistent with national conditions and practice.” In paragraph 3, several of these techniques are mentioned: “Laws or regulations, collective bargaining agreements, or arbitration awards, or ... a combination of these various means.” Clearly this body, a specialized agency of the United Nations, does not assume direct authority to regulate hours but merely makes recommendations to the member states.

We Americans are familiar with “laws or regulations” and with collective-bargaining agreements but not with some of the other techniques mentioned here. Two of them which we might briefly discuss are: arbitration awards and joint agreements between employer and employees’ national organizations. Both procedures are described in the ILO’s major study on work time entitled “Hours of Work in Industrialised Countries.”

In Australia and New Zealand, the book states, the level of working hours is frequently set by “an impartial tribunal which, acting within the framework of the law, determines and makes binding conditions of work. In Australia, it is a widespread practice for the parties to abstain from arriving at an agreement and to refer the matter to the court for settlement. In New Zealand agreements may be made binding by the tribunal.” In this manner, the 40-hour week was established in Australian industries during the late 1940s following its adoption by the Commonwealth Court.

In many European countries, on the other hand, the initial decision to shorten working hours has often been made through agreements between their national employers’ and workers’ organizations. Such was the case in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Italy, and France. Sometimes the reduction in hours has been part of a national economic plan. A time table has been set for reducing the workweek in stages until the ultimate goal is achieved. This method lends itself to various patterns by industry and allows individual unions and employers to conclude their own agreements. The arrangement thus made can be later confirmed through legislation.

The tiny nation of Belgium has one of the world’s shortest workweeks. In 1976, Belgian manufacturing workers averaged 34.8 hours a week on the job compared with 40.0 hours for comparable workers in the United States. The legal limit in Belgium was 48 hours in the early 1950s. In 1955, the central organizations of employers and workers concluded a national agreement which called for the workweek to be progressively reduced by negotiations within each industry. Joint labor-management committees were to set the level of hours for the industry which subsequent legislation would make binding upon all in that sector.

By the time of the 1959 Brussels World Fair, the 45-hour workweek was well-established in the Belgian economy. This became the legal limit in February 1965. Another round of agreements between the national employers’ and employees’ organizations provided for one hour to be cut from the workweek in 1969 in industries in which hours averaged 45 or 44 and for similar reductions to be made to bring the workweek down to 42 hours in 1972. The agreement called for a 41-hour normal workweek by 1974 and a 40-hour week by the end of 1975. In practice, certain industries such as metalworking and engineering reduced their workweeks faster than this.

Neither technique would seem appropriate for the United States. Certainly few Americans wold want their workweek set by the courts. Nor does it seem likely that our national labor and employers’ organizations are ready to sit down together amicably to discuss ways of reducing the workweek.

Perhaps the last time that this kind of solution was attempted was in 1961 when President Kennedy created an Advisory Committee on Labor-Management Policy to deal with the problem of “automation”. The various factions on the committee disagreed sharply over which policy to recommend. Although the labor representatives including Walter Reuther and George Meany favored a policy of reduced hours, the faction which was comprised of management and government representatives was strongly opposed.

The Committee’s majority report stated: “In light of our current responsibilities to meet world conditions and in view of our unmet needs at home, we consider the development of programs directed at the achievement of full employment as being more significant at the present time than the consideration of a general reduction in the hours of work. A reduction in the basic work period has, however, historically been one means of sharing the fruits of technological progress and there may well develop in the future the necessity and the desirability of shortening the work period, either through collective bargaining or by law or by both methods.”

Initially, it should be noted that a third alternative, central economic planning, has been used to reduce work time in the communist countries. The Labor Code of the German Democratic Republic, for instance, provides that “hours of work shall be laid down in the light of labor productivity and in accordance with the social and personal interests of the worker.” Reminiscent of certain U.S. employers, it further declares that “the systematic and progressive reduction of working hours without loss of pay depends upon the workers’s success in raising labor productivity.”

In Czechoslovakia, it was reported that “the reduction of hours of work from 46 to 42 1/2 hours a week was authorized in any establishment only if it did not result in a decline in the trend towards higher quantity and quality in its goods and services or in its economic efficiency.”

The Soviet Union has its own peculiar pattern of reducing hours. The 8-hour day was immediately proclaimed at the time of the Bolshevik revolution. In the period between 1927 and 1933, the 7-hour day was gradually introduced while the number of work days remained at six. With the Nazi invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941, it was thought necessary to return to the 8-hour day and the 48-hour week. In 1956, the Soviet government again approved the principle of a 7-hour day Monday through Friday, with 6 hours of work on Saturdays. This 6-day, 41-hour workweek became the pattern in the late 1950s through the mid 1960s. In 1967, however, the Soviets dropped it in favor of the 5-day, 40-hour week.

The communists combine the ideology of shorter working hours with the reality of some of the world’s longer workweeks. Sometimes workers officially have short hours but unofficially are expected to “volunteer” for extra duty in service to their community.

Also, western imperialism or militarism has been given as an excuse for the failure to reduce hours further. In 1959, for instance, Nikita Khrushchev told a group of U.S. labor leaders: “I think that if our disarmament proposals were accepted - we are now planning a six-hour day in 1964 - we could immediately reduce it to a six-hour day and raise wages.” In fairness to Mr. Khrushchev, that is farther than either his successors or American governmental leaders twenty years later are prepared to go.

The communist ideology stresses that socialist economies have abolished unemployment and progressively improved the wages and hours of working people. This is one of its main selling points. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal quoted a young North Korean woman who worked in a textile factory: “Under the care of our Great Leader (Kim Il Sung), we have a labor law so we work only eight hours a day. After that, we study and enjoy ourselves without any worries.”



In the United States, the technique of hours reduction that is “consistent with national practice” is Federal legislation supplemented by state laws and collective-bargaining agreements. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 is the cornerstone of Federal legislation. This law, as we know, covers a variety of labor concerns. It is the law which requires minimum wages to be paid to employees. It is the law which prohibits sex discrimination in pay for equal work and also which restricts child labor. It is the law which regulates working hours. The Fair Labor Standards Act has been amended six times since it was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt - most recently in 1977.

Our concern here is with working hours. This part of the law appearing in Section 7(a)1 reads: “Except as otherwise provided in this section, no employer shall employ any of his employees who in any workweek is engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce, for a workweek longer than forty hours unless such employee receives compensation for his employment in excess of the hours above specified at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed.”

This single sentence includes three important provisions:

(1) It provides for a standard workweek of 40 hours.

(2) It imposes a penalty upon employers who schedule overtime work - work beyond the standard number of hours per week. They are required to pay the employee one-and-one-half times his or her normal hourly wage.

(3) It defines the categories of workers to which the law applies. To be covered, a worker must be: (a) an “employee” (not self-employed) who (b) “in any workweek is engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce”, and (c) is not one of those whose status is “otherwise provided in this section.”

The first two provisions, though straightforward, are remarkable in that, unlike most other provisions of law, they do not require strict obedience to their particular rule. They clearly mean to influence employers not to schedule more than 40 hours of work in a week but they do not forbid scheduling such hours. They allow some leeway or flexibility in deciding in particular instances how many hours to schedule.

If an employer decides to schedule overtime work, he will not be hauled into court. Rather, the time-and-one-half premium wage creates a financial disincentive for requiring longer hours. Presumably, to avoid paying the premium, the employer can hire new workers to perform the work that would otherwise be done in overtime and he would pay those employees straight-time wages. An incentive is thus created for higher employment.

The third provision is a bit more complicated. Some workers are covered by the requirements of this law but others are not. The covered workers must be connected in some way with goods which are distributed in interstate commerce. There is no good reason for this requirement except that it was the only way that a labor law such as this could be written which would pass the test of Constitutionality. Hence, the rather tortured reference to commerce which is found in Section 2 of this act: “The Congress further finds that the employment of persons in domestic service in households affects commerce.”

The second type of limitation upon the law’s coverage is created by the specific exemptions provided in Sections 7 and 13. This law, being a political product, was influenced by arguments brought before Congress by the representatives of various industries. Some businessmen argued that their businesses depended upon a seasonal pattern of work and it would be difficult to limit work to 40 hours a week during the busy period. Others claimed to be small business proprietors who could not afford the extra labor costs. Some employers cited bona fide collective-bargaining agreements with their employees that specified longer hours of work. The so-called “sheltered workshops”- sheltered from the minimum-wage requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act - needed a special deal to make it economically feasible to employ handicapped, mentally ill, or retarded persons.

The Fair Labor Standards Act contains paragraph after paragraph in which exemptions from the law are granted to various industrial or occupational groups: executives and professionals, employees of small retailing firms, family farmers, fishermen, local bus drivers, radio and television announcers, boat salesmen, butlers, newspaper delivery boys, Christmas-wreath makers, etc.

The Fair Labor Standards Act provides as well for the administrative and judicial machinery to enforce its provisions. It establishes a “Wage and Hour Division” within the U.S. Department of Labor to supervise compliance with the law. In Section 14, the Secretary of Labor is empowered to issue orders and regulations which deviate from the standard for the purpose of encouraging the employment of students, apprentices, and handicapped workers, and to issue special certificates of exemption. The law provides in Section 15, that it will become illegal to “transport, offer for transportation, ship, deliver, or sell in commerce ... any goods in the production of which any employee was employed in violation of Section 6 or Section 7, or in violation of any regulation or order of the Secretary of Labor.”

No employee may be fired or discriminated against by employers for filing a complaint under this law. In Section 16, the law provides that “any person who willfully violates any of the provisions of Section 15 shall upon conviction thereof be subject to a fine of not more than $10,000 or to imprisonment of not more than six months, or both”, and that "any employer who violates the provisions of Section 6 or Section 7 of this Act shall be liable to the employee or employees affected in the amount of their unpaid minimum wages or their unpaid overtime compensation, as the case may be, and any additional equal amount as liquidated damages.”

It should be noted that certain of our labor standards relating to hours did not originate in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Nothing in this law requires employers to provide extra pay for Saturday, Sunday, or holiday work; or to give paid vacations and holidays, or paid sick leave; or to provide severance pay or give prior notice of discharge. Such provisions have generally been introduced through collective bargaining or through the employer’s unilateral decisions.

Also, nothing in this law requires overtime pay after eight hours in a day. That requirement is found not in the Fair Labor Standards Act but in the Work Hours Act of 1962 which consolidated a series of previous 8-hour laws and in the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act of 1936. The Fair Labor Standards Act does not prevent any of the states from passing stricter labor laws or the Federal government from setting tougher standards in its own operation or in that of its contractors.



The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 has had six major amendments. The most frequent purpose of these amendments has been to increase the minimum wage. The latest amendment, passed in 1977, provided for a minimum wage of $2.65 per hour starting on January 1, 1978, which was to be increased each year until it reached $3.35 per hour on January 1, 1981.

Earlier amendments were designed to protect employers from overzealous overtime claims. The 1947 amendments known as the “Portal-to-Portal Act”, specifically excluded from measured work time the time spent ‘walking, riding or traveling to and from the actual place of performance of the principal activity or activities which such employee is employed to perform,” and also, “activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to said principal activity or activities” such as wash-up time. The amendments passed in 1963 provided that workers should receive equal pay for equal work regardless of the worker’s sex.

Another frequent purpose of the amendments has been to expand the categories of workers covered by the law. The 1961 amendments added 3.6 million workers mainly in the retail-trade, service, and construction industries. The 1966 amendments which affected 10.4 million workers extended minimum-wage protection to certain farm workers and other groups. The 1974 amendments added 6.7 million persons, mainly government employees. However, a court decision invalidated this for most state-and-local-government employees. Sloppy implementation led to an expensive lawsuit by postal employees. The amendments passed in 1977 affecting 2.4 million persons repealed the overtime exemptions for hotel, motel, and restaurant workers.

When the law was passed in 1938, its provisions covered approximately one third of all U.S. wage-and-salary workers. In 1979, 54 million American workers were covered, representing more than 60% of the nation’s wage-and-salary workers.

From time to time, the U.S. Congress has hard proposals to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act with respect to the 40-hour standard and the provision for time-and-one-half overtime pay. Since the early 1960s, the AFL-CIO has officially supported the proposal to reduce the standard workweek to 35 hours and to raise the overtime premium to double time. Congressional hearings were held to consider this in November 1963 and again in October 1979.

Another kind of proposal which the unions have often not supported has called for amending the law to encourage experiments with compressed workweeks and flexible hours. This generally involves eliminating the requirement of overtime pay for work beyond the weekly or (in the case of the Walsh-Healey Act) the daily standard so as to give employers and employees greater flexibility in scheduling work. Such proposals applied to private-sector employees have consistently been defeated.

In the public sector, however, legislation was passed in 1978 which required federal agencies to conduct experiments in alternative work schedules such as compressed workweeks, flex-time, and permanent part-time jobs. This law, known as the Federal Employees Flexible and Compressed Work Schedules Act of 1978, provided for a three-year period of testing and evaluation of such experiments by public employees.

The concept of a shorter workweek for the purpose of spreading work and creating jobs for unemployed people is a bit more controversial. Bills directed toward that end have been introduced in Congress and in several of the state legislatures.

At the federal level, the Conyers bill, HR-1784, is the principal vehicle by which the unions and other groups are striving for shorter hours through legislation. The Conyers bill was officially designated “the Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1979.” Its stated purpose was “to revise the overtime compensation requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to provide that, effective January 1, 1983, employees who work more than thirty-five hours in any workweek shall receive overtime compensation for such work at twice their regular rate of pay, and for other purposes.”

The Conyers bill also proposes to amend Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act by striking out “one-and-one-half times” the employee’s regular rate of pay and inserting “two times”. It proposes to reduce the standard workweek in two stages: to 37 1/2 hours, effective January 1, 1981; and to 35 hours, effective January 1, 1983.

In addition, at the end of Section 7, a new paragraph would be inserted: “No employer may knowingly permit any employee to perform work for which the employe is entitled under this section to receive compensation at the rate of pay applicable for overtime employment unless the employee gives his or her consent to perform such work.” The Conyers bill also provides for certain other adjustments to be made in the law relating to penalties for violations and to judicial procedures. Existing collective-bargaining agreements would remain in force for the duration of the contract.

This bill progressed no further than committee hearings. However, Rep. Conyers plans to reintroduce it in the 97th Congress. Before it can be passed, there will obviously have to be a much more widespread and thorough discussion of the shorter-workweek concept and of the particular features in Rep. Conyers’ proposal for amending the Fair Labor Standards Act. In the course of that discussion, some of these might change and new features might be incorporated during the political give-and-take.

Nothing yet is set in concrete. Therefore, it might be useful to consider some of the particular points raised by the Conyers bill and to discuss the various options and alternatives for each.



The Conyers bill represents labor’s traditional goal of winning a shorter work day. The labor movement sprang from this effort: first, replacing the system of working sun-up to sun-down with the uniform 10-hour day; then, converting from a 10-hour day to an 8-hour day; and now the proposal to cut another hour from the daily work schedule.

For workers who must perform physically or mentally tiring work, such a cut in the daily hours would bring welcome relief. In those instances, it might enable working people to enjoy leisure and participate more actively in family life at the end of the day, and so might be preferred to proposals for cutting hours by eliminating entire days of work.

Also, the 5-day, 35-hour workweek has a certain advantage over the 4-day, 32-hour week in that it involves a smaller reduction in hours. Considering that politics is the art of the possible, such a proposal might be more palatable in today’s more cost-minded Congress and for that reason might be better than a theoretically more desirable, but politically unsaleable, alternative.

Apart from the political considerations, though, I would have to believe that the 4-day, 32-hour week meets contemporary needs more fully than the 5-day, 35-hour week. In the first place, less of the work that people are doing today involves physically demanding labor. A majority of American workers are employed in white-collar occupations and in industries that produce services rather than goods. Second, considering that many workers live in suburban communities or otherwise at a distance from the work place, a sizable part of each working day is occupied in traveling to and from work. People would gain more real leisure for the same time off if they could eliminate a day’s commuting rather than leave work earlier in the day. This arrangement would also help more to conserve our nation’s supply of energy.

The three considerations which ought to govern this decision are: (1) Which type of workweek would working people prefer? (2) Which workweek better meets the needs of employers to utilize capital equipment and maintain productive work schedules? (3) Which workweek would be more energy-efficient? In all three respects, the 4-day week appears to have the edge over a 5-day week.

Regarding the first point economists have observed a preference among working people for “lumps of leisure” such as paid vacations as compared with smaller pieces of free time. For instance, a survey of Alameda County, California, employees by Fred Best found that the 4-day, 40-hour workweek was the most popular alternative among 40-hour weekly schedules while the 6-day week consisting of 6 1/2 hour days was the least popular. More recently, the U.S. Department of Labor published another study by Dr. Best entitled “Exchanging Earnings for Leisure: Findings of an Exploratory National Survey on Work Time Preferences”, which found the shortened work day to be a relatively unattractive way to reduce work time. This study did not specifically measure attitudes toward the 4-day week, however.

Regarding the second question, the answer would largely depend upon whether or not the employer might conveniently schedule the work in shifts so as to allow plant and equipment to operate for at least the same length of time. When Henry Ford introduced the 5-day week in 1926, he noted that “of course, an 8-hour man-day is not the same as an 8-hour factory day. In order to make the full use of our plants we shall as before work the men in shifts ... Expensive tools can not remain idle.”

In discussing compressed workweeks, the ILO study of hours of work reported: “A major aim was to achieve a better utilization of equipment. With long work days, possibly with two shifts each day, they (the employers) could achieve maximum use of expensive installations ... Another reason was that the scheme adopted made it possible to offer a service to customers for longer periods each day ..” The 4-day week would at least hold its own in this category of benefit.

The energy implications should be clear from he discussion in the last chapter. With a 4-day workweek, one fifth of the gasoline consumed each week in traveling to and from work each day might in theory be saved. Staggering the extra day off would further ease rush-hour traffic jams. A four-day week would help to save on heating oil in the winters and electricity for air conditioners in the summers.

If indeed the 4-day week is the better goal, what legislative provisions need to be made for this? Would it be necessary to specify in the law the number of days which employees might work without receiving overtime pay? Probably not. If the Fair Labor Standards Act were amended to read that overtime premiums should be paid after 32 hours of work in a week, that in itself would provide a powerful incentive for establishing a 4-day week.

It is true that an employer could respond to the change by scheduling six hours and twenty-four minutes of work on each of five days. However, the law would made it convenient to schedule an even eight hours per day. This would likely happen if the shorter workweek were inaugurated with the general expectation of having a 4-day week.



The Fair Labor Standards Act currently provides that employers should pay the employee “one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed” when a worker is obliged to work more hours in a week than the standard. This provision has not lately been effective in eliminating or significantly reducing the amount of overtime which is scheduled and worked.

In 1979, for instance, a total of 18,765,00 U.S. wage-and-salary workers - 26.2% of the full-time work force - were working 41 or more hours in a week. Of these, 7,999,000, or 42.6% received premium pay. The situation was little changed from that in 1966 when 29.8% of the full-time workers worked overtime and 38.0% of them received premium pay. Manufacturing production workers in 1979 averaged 3.3 weekly hours of overtime compared with 2.8 hours per week in 1956. If employers are clinging so tenaciously to provisions for mandatory overtime in the labor contracts, they obviously are not being deterred from scheduling overtime by the current penalty rates.

The problem, of course, is that many employers feel it is cheaper to pay the overtime penalty than to hire additional workers especially when the overtime is not expected to last very long. According to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey, private employers in 1977 paid an average of $400 per month for fringe benefits, representing 32% of the average salary or wage. Ten years earlier, fringe benefits accounted for only 24% of the average salary or wage.

The fastest-growing benefits in terms of cost include: the employer’s share of Social Security, life and health insurance, and paid vacations. With the exception of the Social Security contributions, these benefits are fixed per employee regardless of the number of hours worked.

If the employer instead hired more workers, he would incur an additional expense in hiring and training the new employee.That employee would not be immediately as productive as an experienced employee. Also, some employers have a policy of deliberately maintaining a “lean” work crew although this means frequent overtime on the theory that they can thereby induce employees to work harder and increase their productivity.

What can be done about overtime? The ILO study has found three basic strategies:

(1) “Legislate against it by seeking to confine its use to genuinely ‘abnormal pressure of work’, by limiting the number of hours per week and the number of weeks per year in which it can be used in such a manner that it cannot be used on a regular basis, and by prescribing procedures of authorization so that the competent authority remains the judge of its necessity.”

(2) “Rely on the deterrent effect of premium rates of pay for overtime hours.”

(3) “Let overtime be worked at will whenever there is no marked objection to it on the part of the workers, recognizing that overtime rates are not, in the circumstances, a serious deterrent.”

The first approach , legal prohibition, is taken in such countries as Austria, Belgium, Finland, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, and the Soviet Union. Under this system, overtime is usually permitted in emergency situations but not non-emergency “economic overtime”. Most countries have a system in which premium wages are paid for overtime work, varying in the degree to which such work is thereby discouraged. In Ireland, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands, there is a relatively low amount of overtime. In Australia, West Germany, Italy, and Japan, the level is higher. The ILO found that “in the United States, there is ... practically no obstacle to overtime working.”

The Conyers bill proposes to attack this problem in two ways. First, it would increase the financial disincentive to the employer by raising the penalty rate to double time. Second, it provides that overtime may not be scheduled unless the employee consents.

Critics of the bill disagree with both provisions. Regarding the first, they take the position that increasing the premium wage would not reduce overtime but merely increase labor costs. The market for certain job skills is so tight, they argue, that the employer would have no alternative but to schedule overtime. Regarding the second, they say that one worker’s “right” to refuse overtime work threatens the “rights” of his co-workers to work overtime by choice.

Dr. Richard Landry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce witness at the hearings on HR-1784, testified: “Placing a voluntary overtime clause in the law means that one worker by refusing overtime may deprive perhaps 100 persons of overtime and the extra income they may desire if they are involved in an assembly-line operation where each person is essential to the task.”

These champions of liberty from the business community stand on their superior insight and understanding regarding modern production schedules. It is incomprehensible to me, however, why an assembly line should have to shut down and deprive 100 persons of work if one of the workers refuses to report for work on Saturday. Are these jobs so difficult or personalized that the employer cannot cross-train workers for several functions? Are back-up personnel impossible to find? If so, what do employers do when particular employees are unable to work because of illness? Shut down their 100-man assembly line? Of course not.

Likewise, the theory that labor markets are so tight that an operation would be crippled unless certain key employees regularly worked 50 or 60 hours per week strains credulity. It is a poorly run business that operates upon such a slim base of personnel. Workers’ job skills can and should be upgraded - and would be, too, if the employer had more incentive for investing in his human capital.

If the Conyers bill passed, overtime no doubt would continue to be worked in case of emergency or where employers did not mind paying the higher premiums. Mainly this bill would accomplish what it was the original purpose of the Fair labor Standards Act to accomplish: to make overtime more expensive for employers than the alternative of hiring more workers so that, as a matter of economics, most employers would choose the latter.

As the situation now stands, critics and proponents of the shorter workweek agree that the current penalty rate does not effectively deter overtime work. While the economics vary by employer, it would appear from the statistical averages of wages and benefits which are furnished by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that raising the penalty rate to double time might be an effective deterrent where the current time-and-a-half penalty clearly is not.

Figure 10-1 makes a a rough calculation of the comparative costs. In 1975, the average labor cost for each hour of overtime work including fringe benefits was $1.24, compared with each $1.00 of straight-time pay which would have been paid to a newly hired employee. Although higher, the hourly cost of overtime was not sufficiently high to offset the indeterminable extra cost of hiring and training new employees and of carrying them for a time at a lower rate of productivity. On the other hand, if the overtime penalty were raised to double time, the table shows that each hour of overtime would cost the employer $1.653 compared with each dollar of straight-time wages and benefits. This cost differential would seem to be a more persuasive deterrent.

        figure 10-1
Comparison of Overtime Cost per Hour in 1975
with each Dollar of Straight-time Wages
marginal cost per
fixed or
hour of overtime
time wages
times 1.5
times 2.0
paid rest on job
legally required payments
pensions & insurance
Divided by $1.361  

The best-known study in this area, which was conducted by Dr. Joyce M. Nussbaum and Dr. Donald E. Wise of MATHTECH, reached the conclusion that “an increase in the overtime premium to double time would cause employment to rise by about 2 percent.” However, their calculation assumes that most of the job creation effect from the higher premium would be lost because of a “declining demand curve” for labor. If we assume that the declining demand curve would be offset by the additional purchasing power of previously unemployed workers, then the expected employment gains would be higher.

The principal shortcoming of the Conyers bill, in my opinion, is not that its provisions are draconian or too severe but that they do not go far enough. Basically, this bill would affect only those workers who are now covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. As a result, its benefit would be missed by some workers such as hospital residents who are in sorest need of reduced hours.

A second criticism might be that, while the bill strengthens the disincentive for employers to schedule overtime, it does nothing to discourage workers from accepting those assignments. In fact, it creates an increased incentive on their part to work overtime. The increased premium rate could amount to a disguised pay increase. Not only would such a perverse feature erode job opportunities for the unemployed but it might also in the long run damage the wage structure of the apparent beneficiaries.

Why is this? Wages tend to stabilize at a worker’s level of want or need. Otherwise the worker might look elsewhere for employment. Some employers dangle frequent overtime opportunities in front of employees instead of higher straight-time pay. They say, in effect: "It is true I am not offering you much of a wage increase next year - we have to stay within the President’s guidelines, you know - but I can promise you that there will be enough overtime for you to come out about the same as with a bigger increase." Employees who accept this sugar-coated proposition become entrapped in a routine of regular overtime work just to meet everyday expenses.

From the employer’s standpoint, this system has its advantages. When business is bad, he can sharply cut labor costs by trimming overtime hours paid at time-and-a-half. When business picks up again, he can either return to a normal overtime-swollen payroll or hire new workers at a comparatively depressed level of wages. For, unlike straight-time pay, overtime premiums do not become part of the wage base upon which percentage increases are given.

The employee may think he is “making out like a bandit” through overtime but he is really becoming more vulnerable to economic change. For, the above-mentioned ILO study points out, “there is no obligation on the employer to offer overtime ... and, if he (the worker) has come to rely on the earnings from systematic overtime his financial situation may be prejudiced, especially when he has entered into mortgage or hire-purchase commitments on the assumption of continued overtime.”

To create jobs for the unemployed as well as to prevent employers from taking advantage of their employees in this way, the government should create a disincentive for employees to accept overtime assignments. This might be done by levying a surtax specifically on the overtime premiums which are raised to a higher rate. Let the extra income gained through overtime premiums be taxed to the employee at whatever rate is necessary to discourage workers from seeking or accepting overtime assignments. This tax would be levied in addition to the personal income tax and apply just to the overtime premiums. All or part of the “windfall” gained by raising the premium rate from time-and-a-half to double-time should be withheld from the employees’ paycheck and go straight to the tax collector.

The purpose here is not to bail Washington out of its financial difficulties but to discourage working overtime so that more jobs will open up for the unemployed. Under such an arrangement, overtime would not be flatly prohibited and there would be no moral stigma attached to such work, but it would become disadvantageous to all parties concerned to have regular overtime work. If an employer needed to work some of his employees overtime to meet an emergency, nothing would stop him from doing so. If an employee needed a little extra money, nothing would prevent him from working longer hours at less than a windfall rate of pay if the opportunity arose. In such a way, the system would retain a degree of flexibility while the chronic scheduling of overtime work would be curtailed.

One might supposed that organized labor would firmly resist any such scheme to tax employees’ overtime earnings. Interestingly, however, two top officials of the United Automobile Workers have offered suggestions along similar lines. Howard Young, a UAW consultant, told the 1978 conference on “Work Time and Employment”: “New legislation might provide not only higher premium pay for overtime but one-sided penalties which would make overtime less attractive to employers without increasing its appeal to employees. For example, a surtax payable to the unemployment insurance fund might be assessed to the employer for overtime hours.”

Likewise, a UAW regional director, Ken Morris, noted that the French Labor Ministry had announced plans to tax one third of the overtime premium. He offered the following “friendly amendment” to HR-1784. “Why not,” he asked, “increase the overtime premium to double time or even higher but have the employer pay as tax all or part of the additional premium into the Unemployment Insurance fund. Besides the virtue of reducing the scheduling of overtime without increasing its desirability to workers, such a proposal would also explicitly link the problems of overtime and unemployment.”



The third area of proposed change concerns the classification of workers who would be covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Originally, this law covered only a minority of working people who were employed in particular industries. They were mainly the production workers in manufacturing and mining. Workers in wholesale and retail trade, the railroads, and the service industries were generally exempt as were salaried white-collar workers. Subsequent amendments have extended coverage to many of these groups but many continue to be excluded.

Obviously, a shorter workweek enforced by overtime penalties cannot apply to all workers. Should, for instance, a U.S. Congressman or the chief executive of a Fortune 500 corporation be paid overtime for working beyond a certain number of hours in a week? Should farmers during harvesting season or an attorney during an important trial? There needs to be some guidelines for types of occupations which should or should not be included.

For one, the self-employed workers should remain exempt. They are already able to schedule their own hours or are bound to the hours needed to service customers or clients. Top-level executives and administrators, partners in professional firms, and others who technically are employed by another but in fact have broad powers to organize and conduct their own work should also be excluded.

Another criterion might be the nature of the work. Some jobs require working longer hours on a seasonal basis or as projects develop. The workers who work under such conditions cannot be limited to a fixed workweek without interfering in the work that they must do. Some jobs such as operating a computer might lend themselves to lengthy periods of work followed by lengthy periods of rest. Also, there are industries which cannot legally be regulated by the federal government such as employment in state and local governments. As amended, the Fair Labor Standards Act would inevitably continue to include a long list of exceptions.

Even so, an effort should be made to tighten the definition of the excluded groups so that employers cannot circumvent the law by reclassifying jobs. A fine line can distinguish the exempt and nonexempt employees. It has happened that certain non-exempt employees who worked substantial amounts of overtime and were paid premium wages were “promoted” into exempt positions which allegedly involved more responsibility but in fact included the same functions as before. The promotion brought little, if any, increase in pay. Because their overtime hours were no longer compensated at time-and-one-half, such workers sometimes actually lost money because of their “promotion”.

Large corporations are not averse to playing tricks on their employees, particularly the young and inexperienced ones. Not long ago, I spoke with a young women who was filling out an application for a new job. She was applying for a “management” job which she said was her position with her present employer, a large department store. As a part of “management”, she was required to work eight to ten hours a day, seven days a week. She suspected that the title was not quite accurate because lately she had been spending a large part of each day washing dishes behind the store’s lunch counter. I believe she told me that she was taking “sick leave” to get away to apply for this different position.

Managerial or professional status offers a large potential for abuse. Promised bigger and better things, such workers are made to feel apprehensive lest their employer detect anything less than whole-hearted commitment to the job. And, the hours that they “voluntarily” spend on the job are one of the most visible and important signs of that commitment.

“Perceive what the corporation or professional firm demands,” wrote Andrew Greeley, a newspaper columnist and Catholic priest. “During the early years of your career, you’ve got to prove your absolutely heroic devotion to the company or the profession by working long hours every day and often far into the night. If you don’t bring a bulging brief case home with you, people begin to wonder about your ‘dedication’. And, of course, you’ve got to be on tap for Saturday and Sunday work whenever the boss thinks it’s a way to escape from his conscience and his responsibilities ... All this is crazy. Neither the corporation nor the career needs the time it demands from young professionals. It is a hazing ceremony, an initiation process, which has nothing to do with either professional competence or efficient work habits.”

This kind of worker is exempt from the overtime-pay requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act under Section 13 (1): “any employe employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity.” Whether by amendment or the law or by stricter enforcement, the loophole needs to be narrowed.

Still more pitiful, though, are the workers who are exempt by virtue of their status as students, learners, or handicapped persons. The Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers of such persons to pay them less than the minimum wage. Several years ago, the Wall Street Journal featured an expose on labor conditions in certain “sheltered workshops.” While the administrators of such institutions were drawing salaries of $40,000 or $50,000 a year and fancy charity balls were being staged to raise money “for a worthy cause”, the handicapped employees themselves were being paid as little as ten cents an hour to do work that had a significant commercial value.

Finally, it should be emphasized that a law is only as good as its enforcement. Some advocates of shorter working hours contend that amending the Fair Labor Standards Act may not be the best way to accomplish this goal because its regulations are already routinely being violated. In certain factories or shops the employees work overtime without being paid time-and-a-half because they fear for their jobs or are unfamiliar with the overtime law or the process of filing a complaint, or because the employer has a paternalistic relationship with them which prevents them from standing up for their rights.

According to the Wall Street Journal, this is often the case among garment workers in New York’s Chinatown. Many workers there regularly work fifty or more hours a week but seldom receive overtime pay although by law they are entitled to it. The article reports: “Many factories make no pretense about keeping records of workers’ hours. At one, the boss simply counts the number of completed garments and multiplies that number by the piece rate for that day’s task. At another, across the street, there is a time clock but every card is turned backwards so workers never punch them.”



The Conyers bill is consistent with previous amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act and with the original act itself in its technique of applying the lower standard in stages. It provides for the standard workweek to be reduced to 37 1/2 hours in January 1981 and to 35 hours by January 1983.

The law which was passed in 1938 prescribed a standard workweek of 44 hours in its first year which was to be reduced to 40 hours effective in October 1940. Similarly, the 1961 amendments covering retail and service workers provided for a 44-hour standard in September 1963, a 42-hour standard one year later, and a 40-hour standard by September 3, 1965. The same technique was used in the 1977 amendments which affected hotel, motel, and restaurant workers. By implementing the reduction in stages, the legislators intended to cushion the economic impact of the change.

A different technique might become necessary where the goal is to eliminate an entire day from the work schedule. If a 4-day, 32-hour workweek is the goal, reducing the standard, for instance, to 38 hours in the first year, 36 hours two years later, etc., might require six to eight years for the conversion during which time employers might be motivated by the operation of 8-hour laws to schedule fewer hours of work in the day rather than a 4-day week.

In countries which have recently converted from the 6-day week to the 5-day week, other techniques have been used for phasing in the shorter hours. For instance, in Finland, after the employers’ and employees’ organizations had agreed to seek a 5-day, 40-hour week, the 5-day week was worked for 13 weeks in the following year, for 21 weeks one year later, 30 weeks two years later, 39 weeks three years later, and for the entire year four years later.

The Japanese method of introducing the 5-day week is described in “Hours of Work in Industrialised Countries”: “In January 1973, Japan’s Ministry of Labor issued an instruction to the governors and labor bureaux of the prefectures with regard to its policy of introducing the five-day week with a phased schedule, beginning with the long weekend once a month and gradually increasing the frequency to three times a month except where it proved possible to introduce the full 5-day week at once. Because of the intensity of competition among the smaller competitions, it was deemed preferable to introduce the measure collectively in particular trades or industries as a whole. It was expected that in the private sector, the five-day week would be implemented, fully or partially, by 1975.”

If a 4-day, 32-hour workweek were introduced in the U.S. economy, the change could be handled in several ways. One way might be to follow the Finnish example in implementing the four-day week for a progressively greater number of weeks in the year or the Japanese example with its monthly cycle. Another way might be to relax the laws requiring overtime after 8 hours in a day, working down from a 4-day, 40-hour week in the first year, to a 4-day week with 9 1/2 hour days, to one with 9-hour days, to one with 8 1/2 hour days, and finally to a 4-day, 32-hour week, with 8-hour days once again.

Another possibility might be a system of seasonal rotation which would work like this: In the first year, American workers would receive a 4-day, 32-hour workweek in the summer months only. In the second year, the new schedule would run through the summer and fall. In the third year, it would run through summer, fall, and winter. Finally, in the fourth year, the 4-day week would become permanently installed throughout the year.

With a 4-day week, which day of the week should be eliminated? Should it be Monday or Friday, or perhaps some other day? Maybe that particular decision could be left up to individual employers and employees. The programs could be developed individually or in conjunction with regional or national trade organizations, local units of government, transportation companies, energy agencies, and other such institutions. In each metropolitan area, a plan might be developed to coordinate changes in work time with proposals for conserving energy, reducing traffic congestion, maximizing the use of public facilities, and promoting the full and efficient flow of commerce.

Theoretically, it would seem desirable to stagger the extra day off among the work force so as to help reduce traffic congestion and allow better use of public facilities. If 20% of the workers took Mondays off, 20% took Tuesdays off, and so throughout the week, then everyone could have a 4-day workweek yet the shops and banks would remain open for one full day in the week when working people could use them at their leisure. Under such an arrangement, the people who work would have one day of their own when the public golf courses and tennis courts would be relatively uncrowded, traffic would be lighter for doing errands, the lines would be shorter or nonexistent at amusement parks, or at the post office, or at the check-out desk of a public library. It would begin to seem a saner world.



The Conyers bill is silent on the subject of wages. What then would prevent employers who convert to a 35-hour or 32-hour week from shifting the cost of this change to employees by continuing to pay them at the same hourly rate? Legally, nothing would prevent them from doing that. However, the forces of the free market would ensure that employers who tried to take advantage of their employees would pay a price: They might lose valuable workers.

As shorter hours restricted the supply of labor, wage levels would naturally rise. Unemployment would be lower so that workers could quit undesirable jobs with more assurance that another job would be available. The price would be greater for employers who adopted a “take-it-or-leave-it” position with employees about wages or indeed about any other thing.

Historically, average wages have risen as working hours have been reduced. The ILO publication “Hours of Work in Industrialised Countries”, reports that following World War II “not only was there this great increase in total output, but also a very substantial increase in productivity which occurred concurrently with a substantial reduction in actual hours of work and an extension of holidays with pay ... As a result of these developments and once the period of postwar reconstruction was over, reduction of hours of work became a live issue again in those countries where the number was still above 45 a week ... In those circumstances, there was no longer any question of reducing real incomes when hours of work were reduced. Almost without exception, reductions in hours of work in this period were accompanied by at any rate the maintenance of real earnings. In practice, the outcome of many collective negotiations provided at the same time both for a shorter working week with perhaps also an extension of holidays with pay and for an increase in weekly earnings.”

This book is referring to long-term improvements in wages and hours which were made possible by improved productivity. Such a development should not be confused with adjustments made in response to declines in the business cycle. In periods of recession, working people have sometimes agreed to take a cut in hours and weekly pay to save the jobs of their co-workers who might otherwise have been laid off.

Such arrangements were put into effect at the Washington Star, the New York Telephone company, a Chrysler plant in Michigan, municipal governments in Maryland and Connecticut, among others, during the 1973-75 recession. President Ford remarked at the time that they showed “our people are still working to pull together and share hardship in difficult times.” Commendable through they may be, such work-sharing schemes are not what is being advocated here.

A related concept is the idea of short-time compensation. Some have proposed that the federal government establish a fund similar to the Unemployment Insurance fund which would subsidize employment at a lower level of hours instead of paying benefits to those who are totally unemployed. Such funds have been pioneered in Europe. In West Germany, for instance, the national government compensated short-time workers through their employers for an average of 68% of the lost wages from reduced hours of work during the last recession.

The German government found this to be cheaper than paying unemployment benefits. A similar system has been used in Italy, France, Austria, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands to cushion the loss of jobs. The state of California is presently paying short-time compensation to workers and has achieved generally positive results. From a national standpoint, the main stumbling block is that the Unemployment Insurance system encourages layoffs. It would take a great effort to change the law in Congress or in the state legislatures.

A national work-sharing program based upon the European or California model would be an improvement upon what we have now but it would not substitute for the shorter workweek. The main difficulty with this approach is its assumption that a full-time workweek permanently consists of 40 hours. If the U.S. economy cannot provide 40 or more hours of useful work each week to 100 million Americans, then we must be experiencing slack economic conditions. The solution would then be to furnish welfare-like wage supplements.

What if the economy cannot furnish these people with 40 hours of work because the gains in productivity have enabled a smaller number of workers to produce a growing volume of output in the same time? In that case, “hard times” are not what is causing the unemployment although they may aggravate that condition. Rather, it is a long-term maladjustment between hours, employment, and production. We need to correct for this through shorter hours, not add another welfare-like mechanism which could easily become permanent and bigger.



There are millions of good men and women in America who are, as the inscription says, “yearning to breathe free.” It is true, most of us have an easier time of it than our forbearers who worked 10- and 12-hour days in the mines and mills, six days a week. The 40-hour week is not an inhumane standard. And yet, in some ways, Americans are worse off than before.

Not every American works a 40-hour week; there are still some horrendous hours being worked in this land. Also, work has become less meaningful, productive, and creative than it once was as the bureaucracies of business, government, labor, education, and the professions have contrived to bring it more and more under their control.

Experts tell us that the average American worker wastes a large part of each work day. The worker lacks sufficient dedication and zeal. He may have lost the spirit but, more likely, the job itself is organized in a stifling, deadly routine. There are, plainly, countless people wasting away in their jobs. They are waiting for retirement when they will be free.

The way things are going, though, these happy days of retirement may never come for many of the people now working. Social Security may collapse. Pension funds may fail or be filled with worthless dollars. They themselves may expire before their time. Natural resources may give out or else become prohibitively expensive.

It is evident that working people must make their bid for self-development now or it may be too late. We cannot be totally free; most of us will continue to subordinate ourselves for most of the time to an employer to earn our daily bread. Still, although we labor for someone else, we may struggle to increase the amount of time that we have for ourselves and for our families. We should push forward the frontier of freedom another notch to give ourselves more room to breathe.

Each of us has dreams, private aspirations, personal longings and ambitions. In the course of a lifetime, some of them may come to pass; hopefully, many. However, it is not likely that any of our personal goals will be realized unless we actively work to achieve them. Our employer’s goals are continually being worked on but our own are neglected. (Few people are their own employers or are so high up in their employers’ organizations that they can truly consider his goals synonymous with their own. They have common interests but that is as far as it goes.) Therefore, it is imperative to increase the opportunity to work on one’s own goals. That means, essentially, having more free time.

Working five days a week for eight hours a day (if that is all), we probably have enough time for rest and recreation and occasionally for other things, but not enough really to cultivate major personal projects. Our life’s goals must be patiently cultivated, one bit at a time, so that we can watch them being worked out and have a chance to correct mistakes. It is better to develop these interests over a lifetime rather than to take everything up suddenly the moment one retires.

Sunday is a day of rest. Saturday is for chores, social activities, and other such functions. If we had one more day a week, we could use it to cultivate personal projects. We could continually be building toward something and have something in life all our own, no matter how our jobs have progressed or what the state of the economy.

What is to guarantee that an extra day off each week would be put to good use? Some people are not suited to self-disciplined activity. That is true. People must often be shown how to use their time to best advantage. And yet, there is a substantial body of experience in handling leisure. Some groups of people have traditionally had more leisure than others - housewives, for example. Those who are clumsy with leisure can learn from those who have had greater experience. Beyond this, there is room for an organization or several of them which can guide society toward the more creative and productive uses of leisure. Groups of likeminded people can share ideas for solving the problems which arise and for reenforcing each other’s efforts.

It is clear that most people will continue to have to work for a living. We should not be such fools as to anticipate, with John Kenneth Galbraith, that “the greatest prospect we face is to eliminate toil as a required economic institution.” Only the academics can talk this way. Toil will be with us forever - unless, of course, we manage to disassociate ourselves from the rest of humanity and, as a privileged class live off their productions. Though toil will always be with us, it can nevertheless be there to varying lesser degrees. We can pay the required toil to society and then have time for other activities which are personally more interesting and fulfilling.

We can all be artists and musicians if we like. We can all be writers, poets, and philosophers. We can all be athletes. This does not mean that our creative efforts would be accomplished enough to sell in the marketplace; but it wouldn’t matter. We would not have to earn a living from them. We could do them for the love of the activity itself. Our material needs would be met by the toil which we expended during the hours of “work”. We could thus be part-time workers for others and part-time workers for ourselves. Or, if we wished, we could work part time and loaf the rest of the day.

Presently, people have the wrong idea about this. Part-time work is thought to indicate insufficient seriousness about working. The person who seeks such employment is subject to discrimination in pay. There is little economic cause to justify such discrimination. The part-time workers of culture are treated with contempt; they are not professionals but are indulging themselves in a hobby. By the same standard, though, we should condemn as amateurs such persons as Rousseau, Spinoza, and the apostle Paul, all of whom depended upon a mundane occupation or trade to support themselves.

Mainly we make the mistake of supposing that a person’s choice of occupation determines whether or not he is a success. We envy the doctor or lawyer; we despise the janitor and the garbage collector. We ought to admire the lawyer if he is a good one and despise him if he is a bad one; but that insight is beyond us. Lawyers as a profession usually make more money than janitors and their hands are clean. In a real sense, of course, it is the man or woman whom we should admire and not the person in an occupation. Any person in any occupation has the opportunity to perform with distinction. Walt Whitman had it right: “There is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero.”

In the past decade, we have been through a series of economic adventures which have taken us from wage-and-price controls to summit meetings on inflation to Depression-era joblessness to rescue missions for the dollar, with the bankruptcy or threatened bankruptcy of major institutions, stubborn unemployment, rampaging inflation, a revolt against high taxes, huge federal budget deficits, the welfare problem continuing, Social Security a mess. The right formula has not been found; that is clear. But it is still not clear whether we are even moving in the direction of finding a solution. Are our leaders, economic and political, up to it?

Robert B. Semple, Jr., deputy managing editor of the New York Times, writes of the decision making which he has observed in Washington, D.C. during the past several years: “What depresses me most when I think of those years are not memories of casual dishonesty, the unexamined slide into war or even Watergate, but a wearing sense of the utter predictability of the place. It is a world of well-worn ruts - smooth, remorseless, and bipartisan. If the political process is to be commended for reconciling unwanted passions, it is also to be rebuked for encouraging raging egos, an emphasis upon style to the exclusion of thought, and the automatic and safe response to whatever problem seems to be at hand.”

Several years back, President Nixon’s chief economist, Herbert Stein, declared with an arrogance typical of this period: “There is no serious, coherent policy that is an alternative to the one the Administration has initiated.” As I recall, that policy which in Stein’s opinion had such a lock on the logical possibilities of that time consisted of "Phase II" wage-and-price controls. Whether or not respectable economists agree with the concept of work sharing, they must acknowledge, at least, that it is a “serious coherent policy that is an alternative” to the conventional economic wisdom of the times.

Economists may pretend that such a policy does not exist by refusing to discuss it. It may seem that no economists exist - respectable ones anyhow - who espouse this particular position but only crackpots. Elected public officials may imply that they are doing as much for the unemployed as they possibly can. However, this stance is clearly deceitful in view of the alternative which plainly exists and which ought to be recognized considering its economic and historical importance, the shorter workweek.

With Walt Whitman, we will say:

“Allons! the inducements shall be greater,
We will sail pathless and wild seas,
We will go where winds blow, waves dash, and the
Yankee clipper speeds by under full sail.
Allons! with power, liberty, the earth, the elements
Health, defiance, gayety, self-esteem, curiosity;
Allons! from all formules!
From your formules, O bat-eyed and materialistic priests.
The stale cadaver blocks up the passage -
the burial waits no longer.”

Professional reputations may be at stake but so are the lives of working people. If things get bad enough, maybe our leaders will deign to consider alternatives to what they have always preferred. Maybe, even, those alternatives will be found to work. Think what may happen! People will come crawling out of the woodwork, professing their faith in the shorter workweek. The hired economists will retreat in shame, still trying to explain why or whether the emperor had clothes. The whole thing will seem so simple and natural that we all will wonder why we didn’t think of it before.


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