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

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

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

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

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

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

KELLOGG’S SIX-HOUR DAY

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

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

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

Farewell, good friend, oh six hours!

Tis sad, but true,

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

Get out your vitamins, give the doctor a call,

Cause old eight hours has got us all.

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

 
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