POLITICS

Why Isn't Every Monday Like Labor Day?

09/02/2013 12:01 am ET | Updated Oct 25, 2013

For nearly two years, Tom Allen clocked into his job at a defense hardware plant in Lansing, Mich. in the afternoon to start a 12-hour shift, usually operating a metal lathe machine. The hours were long, but the overtime pay was welcome. Still, at the end of the week, Allen said, he'd get home Saturday morning at 5:30 a.m. so tired he'd sleep until dinnertime.

"By Sunday night you felt pretty good," Allen, 63, said in an interview. "Then it started all over again."

But when the company, Demmer Corporation, told him he had to work on Saturdays and Sundays as well, Allen refused. "I literally told them, 'I'm not going to have a heart attack and die in the traces just so you guys can make a little extra money.'"

Demmer fired him in December 2010 and has appealed his unemployment claim, saying he had no proof he'd been promised only 60 hours and he had no right to skip shifts. In August, a Michigan court sided with Demmer.

Eighty-four hours per week -- that's the kind of schedule Americans worked more than 200 years ago, back when there was no cure for "consumption" and happiness was a revolutionary pursuit. Americans fought and fought to get those hours down.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, workers went on strike thousands of times and bled to death in the streets in the struggle against long hours, which they argued were dangerous and inhumane. They demanded "time to eat, time to live, time to be happy, time to be a person," as one union worker put it in 1919, using terms that ring no less true today.

Back then, labor advocates linked the problems of the over- and under-employed, arguing shorter hours would reduce joblessness by spreading work around. The argument applied whether it justified reducing the workweek from 72 to 60 hours or 40 to 30. Samuel Gompers, leader of the American Federation of Labor until his death in 1924, put it this way: "So long as there is one who seeks employment and cannot find it, the hours of labor are too long."

For more than a hundred years, workers successfully pushed for shorter and shorter hours as productivity kept increasing. In the early 1900s, progress appeared unstoppable. Soon, it seemed, people would hardly have to work at all.

"By 1933, observers were predicting that the 30-hour week was within a month of becoming federal law," labor historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt has written, "and that the 'progressive shortening of the hours of labor' was an inescapable economic fact of life and the dominant political trend."

Yet the movement for shorter hours has fizzled. Since the passage of the landmark Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which established the minimum wage and the 40-hour workweek, the idea that shorter hours could reduce unemployment and lessen misery has been largely forgotten.

Today, two-thirds of American workers are on the job at least 40 hours per week, with 25 percent working longer and nearly 7 percent putting in more than 60 hours, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The entrepreneurial spirit is our holiest ghost, and slacking is downright un-American. And whereas technology was supposed to make work easier and give everyone more free time, for some people, bedside smartphones have made work relentless. Studies have shown that overwork leads to excessive stress and devastating health problems.

Meanwhile, the benefits of shorter hours to workers and society have never really been discredited. The concept is so powerful that it inspired both Karl Marx and, even though its members don't realize it, today's Republican Party.

People ought to wonder on a day like Labor Day, when friends and neighbors and family have gathered, when ice-cold beer cans are sweating in a bucket and hot dogs sizzle on the grill, when pride swells in the American way of life -- why don't we do this more often? If more time off could benefit both individual human beings and the broader economy, why don't we have more long weekends? Why isn't every Monday a Labor Day?

The basic logic of shorter hours has always been simple. As technological advances keep making workers more productive, fewer people are needed to get the same amount of work done. If overemployed people worked less, underemployed people could pick up the slack.

"If you think of the economic problem we're facing now, it's kind of absurd. We're basically able to make too much stuff," Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, said in an interview. "Why don't we all just work a little less and let the people who aren't working pick up part of that time?"

There's no question that some Americans would like to work less. According to the government's Current Population Survey in 2001, 7 percent of Americans said they would be willing to work fewer hours, even if it meant earning less money. The government hasn't asked the question since.

Private surveys yield a wide range of estimates, and results depend on the way the question is asked. Fifty-two percent of respondents to a Center for the New American Dream survey in 2003, for instance, said they would be willing to trade one day off a week for an equivalent pay reduction. A 2002 survey by the Work In America Institute found 27 percent of non-union workers would take 10 percent less pay for 10 percent less work. A 2006 survey of working moms by CareerBuilder.com found 52 percent would take a pay cut to spend more time with their children. And in July, 18 percent of respondents to a Huffington Post/YouGov poll said that they would take the opportunity to work one less day each week and receive 20 percent less pay.

If 18 percent of the working population wants 20 percent less pay for another day off, that's 26 million people who favor a permanent three-day weekend.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons we don't all just work less. One major obstacle is our health care system. Though the percentage of employers offering health insurance has been declining for years, most workers still get their health care coverage that way. Working part-time could mean sacrificing the insurance. And from the employer's perspective, continuing to offer the same health insurance at a fixed cost while getting fewer hours of work in return is not a good bargain.

We cling to the 40-hour workweek for cultural reasons as well. We valorize hard work and hate loafers. A shorter workweek? They surrendered to that idea in France. (Or at least they tried to -- the French workweek still pretty much looks like ours.)

In a 2007 paper, economists Lonnie Golden and Morris Altman summarized the myriad reasons research has shown workers don't seek fewer hours: Employers use longer workdays to screen out less productive workers, while employees put in more hours to build up savings in case they're fired. They also out-work their colleagues to try to win promotions or so they look good in the event of downsizing. And while some workers might be okay with less pay for more time off, others want to keep their income as high as possible in order to maintain their spending habits -- and to keep up with the neighbors.

High levels of unemployment can also make workers even more committed to long hours, as there are so many others eager for your job. Tom Allen said he witnessed a pattern of burnout at his company. "They would hang in there as long as they possibly could," he said of his colleagues. "They would gradually not be able to hang on and end up getting fired." Then they'd be replaced.

In an interview, Golden, a professor at Penn State Abington, lamented that the U.S. government so closely tracks underemployment but ignores overemployment.

"National policy ought to make it safe for people to use a wide range of reduced-time options," Golden said, acknowledging that pushing such a policy would be pretty difficult. "It's a different cultural standard. There must be something about Americans who think it's not feasible."

And yet the idea of shorter hours is uniquely American.

Most people in the colonies in the early 1700s had Sundays off but still worked from sunup to sundown the other six days of the week, according to "Our Own Time," a 1989 history of the American working day by David R. Roediger and Philip S. Foner.

The first strike for 10-hour days occurred in 1791, and it wasn't long before workers connected long hours with seasonal unemployment. In 1827, striking carpenters in Philadelphia argued that 10-hour days would spread their work out evenly throughout the year, and "make a journeyman of nearly as much value in the winter as in the summer."

Employers did not appreciate all the strikes for more time off. "Before I will employ a 10-hour man my ships shall rot at the wharves -- my half-finished buildings shall totally decay," a New Bedford ship-builder vowed in 1832, anticipating Ayn Rand's fictional shrugging capitalists by more than a century. Still, laborers enjoyed scattered success prying shorter hours directly from businesses and favorable policies from the government. Hours declined steadily.

After the Civil War, workers started demanding even shorter eight-hour days, sparking a national movement.

"Out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose," Marx wrote in 1867. "The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours' agitation, that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California."

By 1868, eight states had passed eight-hour laws, and Congress gave eight-hour days to federal workers -- though Roediger and Foner write that these measures were largely ineffective. Most people still worked longer than 10 hours a day, and on Saturdays, too.

Labor leaders called for a general strike on May 1, 1886, in support of the eight-hour workday, and local unions across the country pushed for the new limit. A Wisconsin official later wrote that eight hours "was the topic of conversation in the shop, on the street, at the family table, at the bar, in the counting room, and the subject of numerous able sermons from the pulpit."

Hundreds of thousands of workers joined days of strikes across the country. In Chicago's Haymarket Square, however, things got ugly. On May 4, somebody -- the person's identity remains unknown -- threw a bomb at police trying to disperse a crowd of peaceful protesters. Seven officers and at least four civilians died from the explosion and the ensuing gunfire. In the days that followed, police arrested hundreds of people, and eight were prosecuted for conspiracy and sentenced to death. The government eventually hanged four of them.

Today, international May Day celebrations mark the anniversary of the strike. But at the time, public opinion in the U.S. sided with the police. Labor activists considered the event a huge setback for the eight-hour movement, and largely moved away from mass strikes as a tactic for winning shorter workdays. Congress declared Labor Day a national holiday shortly after a similarly tragic crackdown on rail workers in 1894.

* * * * *

Not all economists and historians link the shortening of hours to labor agitation. In a 1995 survey of 178 members of the Economic History Association, a majority agreed that the shortening of hours was a result of economic growth.

Some industrialists considered it good for business. Henry Ford, no friend to unions, adopted the eight-hour day in 1914 "because it so happens that this is the length of time which we find gives the best service from men, day in and day out." In 1926 Ford also gave his workers two days off instead of one, something labor leaders had begun to demand.

The five-day week didn't catch on with most other business moguls, though, as Hunnicutt, Roediger and Foner have documented. John Edgerton, head of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in 1926 that it was "time for America to awake from its dream of an eternal holiday." George L. Markland, chairman of the board of Philadelphia Gear Works, said that year that "any man demanding the 40-hour week should be ashamed to claim citizenship in this great country," adding that "the men of our country are becoming a race of softies and mollycoddles." Elbert Gray of U.S. Steel cited the Bible: "Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work."

But labor had God on its side as well. Jewish leaders pointed out that Saturday work violated the Jewish Sabbath. "I can see but one way to save the Sabbath for the Jew, and that is through the establishment of the five-day week," Rabbi Israel Herbert Levinthal said in 1925.

The early 20th century also witnessed new attitudes toward leisure, and workers couched their demands not only in practical terms but also in humanitarian ones. In 1919 for instance, Juliet Stuart Poyntz of the International Ladies' Garment Workers union argued that workers wanted "time for rest, time to play, time to be human."

"[The worker] is not the slave of 50 years ago. He has something to live for. He is not a machine. He is a person," Poyntz wrote. As such, what he wants most is time -- "time to eat, time to live, time to be happy, time to be a person. … More education, more recreation, more pleasure, more rest, more time for himself."

An Italian immigrant steelworker fresh off a 24-hour shift, responding to the claim that people in his profession received good pay, put it this way that same year: "To hell with money! No can live!"

Monsignor John Ryan, an economist and Catholic priest, argued in 1931 for shorter hours and against what he called a "new gospel of consumption" designed to justify income inequality and human suffering.

"Just why a people should spend its time in turning out and consuming a hundred kinds of luxuries which minister only to material wants, instead of obtaining leisure for the enjoyment of higher goods of life is not easily perceptible," Ryan wrote. "After all, neither production nor consumption is an end it itself."

As the Great Depression threw the economy into disarray, labor advocates set their sights on the 30-hour week -- six hours of work per day, five days per week. In the early 1930s, Sen. Hugo Black (D-Ala.) introduced legislation calling for a 30-hour week as the "only practical and possible method of dealing with unemployment." The Senate passed the bill, but it died in the House, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration signaled its opposition, partly out of sympathy to business.

Instead, Congress passed the Social Security Act in 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. The former offered unemployment insurance and retirement benefits, which effectively shortened work over a lifetime, if not in an individual week. The latter established a minimum wage and the 40-hour week, with time-and-a-half pay for overtime.

The arrival of World War II prompted some backlash against shorter workdays, and manufacturing hours rose to support the war effort. As the war's end drew near, unions argued for the six-hour day as a way to reduce the inevitable unemployment of returning troops, but when the unemployment didn't happen, the shorter-hours movement lost steam. Anti-Communist sentiment during the Cold War didn't help.

Calls for shorter hours have remained scarce in recent decades. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) pushed for a 35-hour week in 1979. "One of the chief methods of keeping unemployment in check during the Depression was the adoption of the 40-hour work week," Conyers said at the time. "During the past 30 years, however, the work week has remained substantially unchanged, despite the frequency of massive unemployment, large-scale technological displacement of human labor, and considerable gains in productivity. We ought to look at reducing the working week and spreading employment among a greater number of workers, once again, as a means to reducing joblessness without sacrificing productivity."

The AFL-CIO backed the legislation, but Republicans said it would cause inflation and it didn't get much attention. As Roediger and Foner have pointed out, dips in the number of working hours are now largely seen "not as labor victories but as omens of a deteriorating economy."

Conyers hasn't revisited his proposal for shorter hours as a response to the current economic crisis. Instead, he recently supported taxing banks and using the money to pay for public jobs, a proposal partly modeled after the New Deal's Works Progress Administration.

"Since the depression, public policy has been designed to maintain 'adequate demand' and 'full employment,'" Hunnicutt writes. "Government deficit spending, liberal Treasury policies, increased government payrolls, expanded public works projects, and increased military spending have usually been employed when the economy has become 'sluggish.'"

Shorter hours have simply not been part of the equation.

* * * * *

But don't count shorter workdays out. Some companies voluntarily shortened their workweeks in response to the Great Recession. A 2009 survey of 245 large U.S. companies found that 13 percent had decreased hours to prevent layoffs.

Casino mogul Steve Wynn and steelmaker Nucor Corp., for example, cut hours and pay that year instead of firing people. A Nucor production manager told the Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel in 2010 that the shorter hours weren't easy for everyone. "People were severely impacted from a pay standpoint, in terms of hours being cut and our unique bonus structure," he said. "But everyone also understood that they kept their jobs and their benefits."

The recession has also triggered a slew of proposals for government-sanctioned work-sharing, also known as short-time compensation. Under such a program, firms can reduce workers' hours instead of laying them off, and workers can keep their jobs while collecting unemployment checks proportionate to the hours they've lost. Since the policy doesn't cost much money, it's appealing to Republicans wary of anything that might increase the federal budget deficit.

This year, Republicans in the House of Representatives also proposed changing the Fair Labor Standards Act so that instead of paying wage-earners time-and-a-half for overtime, businesses could offer future comp time instead. Democrats countered that the bill, known as the Working Families Flexibility Act, would effectively let employers stop paying overtime. The family flexibility bill passed the Republican-controlled House but got no love from the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.

Hunnicutt, who has written several books on shorter hours, including one this year titled "Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream," said he's not a Republican but he liked the proposal a lot.

"The argument for it is this would be a way to reward people with time rather than money," Hunnicutt said. "There is this pent-up consumer demand for leisure that's out there. I was for it. I thought it was a great bill."

Of course, Republicans are not interested in deliberately shortening the workweek. The Affordable Care Act, they say, is forcing some employers to cut hours in order to escape the law's insurance mandate for full-time employees.

“The Working Families Flexibility Act was designed to give moms and dads more choices as to how they balance their jobs and family time, and make it possible to better schedule doctor’s appointments and school events," said Rory Cooper, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). "The biggest threat to the 40-hour workweek in America today is Obamacare, which is quickly transforming our full-time workforce into a part-time workforce given the extra costs now associated with giving hardworking employees more hours, and that is shameful."

But Obamacare may also give some new freedom to the overemployed. The Congressional Budget Office reported in 2011 that the Affordable Care Act would reduce employment by the equivalent of 800,000 jobs in 2021 because new subsidies will make it easier for people to buy their own insurance, "which will encourage some people to work fewer hours or to withdraw from the labor market."

Unlike most other developed countries, including Canada, Germany and Italy, the U.S. does not have a national work-sharing program. But an increasing number of states have begun trying it out. In 2012, a bipartisan agreement led Congress to give states extra cash to promote and operate short-time compensation programs. Last year the U.S. government estimated the program saved some 60,000 jobs. In 2009 it saved 165,000.

Economist Dean Baker, one of the foremost proponents of work-sharing, is baffled by how little attention the concept has received, given its bipartisan backing.

"It's almost incredible, the lack of publicity," he said. "We've been able to get almost nothing from the White House in terms of promoting it."

Germany's short-time compensation program increased employment there by 250,000 to 400,000 jobs in 2009, according to the Urban Institute. Here, the scheme is available in only 26 states, with Ohio having signed up this year.

"The appeal is that employees don't have to have the conversation with their families that [they are] laid off," Bob Peterson, a Republican member of the Ohio House of Representatives, said in an interview in March. The Ohio General Assembly approved the work-sharing plan in July.

Still, even as he sponsored the work-sharing plan, Peterson scoffed at the notion of a shorter work week.

"My background is I'm a farmer," Peterson said. "I'm used to a 60-hour work week. A 40-hour week sounds like a vacation to me."

This story appears in Issue 70 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Oct. 11 in the iTunes App store.

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