POLITICS
02/05/2014 04:21 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2014

Everybody Didn't Used To Hate The Idea Of Working Fewer Hours

WASHINGTON -- The Congressional Budget Office reported Tuesday that the Affordable Care Act will reduce the workforce by the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time workers over 10 years.

Republicans are very upset. "Under Obamacare, millions of hardworking Americans will lose their jobs and those who keep them will see their hours and wages reduced," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said on Twitter Tuesday.

It may not be as bad as Republicans say. As the budget office explained, while the law will reduce total hours worked by as much as 2 percent from 2017 to 2024, the reduction won't come from layoffs.

"The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply, rather than from a net drop in business' demand for labor," the CBO wrote in its report, adding that a smaller labor supply and fewer hours of work would not result in higher unemployment.

Democrats and the Obama administration have sought to explain the ways in which the law could actually boost employment and give people the freedom to get out of jobs they don't really want. Escaping "job lock" could mean retiring early, starting one's own a business, or simply working less and spending more time off.

But a century ago, Democrats might have praised the law simply for reducing work hours. As HuffPost has reported, for more than 100 years, working fewer hours was one of the foremost goals of the labor movement.

In the 1700s, people used to work from sunup to sundown six days per week, as historians like David Roediger and Philip Foner have documented. After the Civil War, workers sought eight-hour days, and in the early 20th century they demanded the 40-hour week. Then, the shorter-hour movement fizzled after the New Deal established overtime pay for work exceeding 40 hours per week and a variety of other worker benefits. Employers started offering health insurance as a job perk that circumvented wage controls during World War II, and 40 hours has been the standard workweek ever since.

Benjamin Kline Hunnicut, a history professor and the author of several books on the American workweek, argues in his most recent book that free time is the forgotten American Dream.

Hunnicutt thinks there's lots of pent-up labor demand for jobs that take less time. "Those who cannot work 40 hours constitute a considerable untapped, reserve labor pool for economic growth," Hunnicutt wrote in an email.

"If the Affordable Care Act gives working people a better chance to choose how long they need to work, and how long they need to do other things," he said, "that should be counted a good thing."

Of course, business interests probably don't want to increase workers' bargaining power relative to the status quo. The same has been true whenever workers have tried to improve their lot by demanding shorter hours.

The chairman of Philadelphia Gear Works, for instance, said in 1926 that "any man demanding the 40-hour week should be ashamed to claim citizenship in this great country," and that "the men of our country are becoming a race of softies and mollycoddles."

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