April 19, 2023

group of factory workers

The end of hump day?                                                                                  

I noticed that on this day in 1919, the French Assembly approved an 8-hour work day, and on this day in 1932, President Hoover proposed a 5-day 40-hour work week. It caused me to wonder about the origins of our 9 to 5, Monday-Friday work standard.

Historically, long work weeks of grueling manual labor in the fields and factories were the norm. When the US government first tracked worker hours in 1890, manufacturing workers were found to be working 100-hour weeks. The vast majority of Americans at the time worked 12-14 hour days, 6 days a week and child labor was routine.

While the notion of an 8-hour day for factory work was introduced in Spain by royal edict back in 1594, the modern labor movement arose during the industrial revolution first in Britain, where they passed the Factory Act of 1833 that limited factory work to 8-hour days . . . for children aged 9-13, and to 12 hour days for those 14-18. The UK to this day has yet to achieve a universal 8-hour day in legislation. The first national policy to provide for an 8-hour day for all workers occurred in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Here in the US, a reprieve to the 7-day work week began in the early 19th century with employers beginning to grant a religious exception to work on Sundays based on the notion the Bible required Christians to abstain from travel, work or recreation on the holy day. By the late 1800s, certain groups of workers in specific industries were successful in lobbying for standard 8-hour days, and in 1869, Ulysses S. Grant issued a short-lived proclamation for the 8-hour day to apply to government workers.

However, in 1926, Henry Ford changed the game by establishing a 40-hour, 5-day work week in all of his plants. While highly controversial at the time, his experiment was declared successful, with higher productivity and better morale, causing other major businesses to adopt similar policies. 

And while President Hoover proposed the 40-hour work week for federal employees that became law in the Economy Act of 1932, he was no friend to the working class. Hoover was America’s first businessman president, an industrialist who built his wealth from mining. He presided over the onset of the Great Depression and enacted this bill in order to cut the wages of government employees to help close a budget deficit.

Finally, the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, part of FDR’s New Deal, enacted a 44-hour work week, which was later amended to 40-hours in 1940. Last month, Congressman Takano from Riverside, CA introduced a bill to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to shorten the standard work week to 32 hours, essentially a 4-day work week. This emanates from a recent labor movement that is beginning to gain some traction.  Several trials of 4-day 32-hour work weeks conducted by 61 smaller British businesses and 33 larger US, Australian and Irish companies both concluded in recent months with stunning results.  Companies reported higher productivity, increased revenues and improved employee mental and physical health. The vast majority of businesses that took part in the trials declared that they will not revert back to a 40-hour 5-day week.

Such proposals may be welcomed in nations such as France that remain famously protective of their leisure time, as attested by their short work weeks, ample paid vacation and ongoing months-long riots to prevent increasing the retirement age from 62 to 64. Here, however, we continue to experience egregious violations of child labor and the average American reports working well in excess of 40 hours per week in the only advanced economy with zero guaranteed paid vacations nor maternity leave.

We are at the dawn of a new era of work standards, with hybrid and remote work, flexible hours and arrangements to meet the needs of the new economy. But it remains an open question how such proposed labor-friendly policies will fare in a global highly competitive marketplace, exhibited by China’s ongoing embrace of their 996 work culture, 9a to 9p, 6 days per week.

On a separate note:
While it’s been amusing watching the upstarts with their cute little flashlight, we all await the Warriors getting serious with the Kings tomorrow night, even if they need to overcome league officials and play short-handed in the defense of their crown.

Scott Wu

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