8 Hour Workday Which Changed How Americans Work
The eight-hour workday, or 40-hour work week, did not become the modern labor standard by accident. (How Americans Work)
When the government first tracked workers’ hours in 1890, full-time construction workers worked a backbreaking 100 hours each week.
Changes from companies such as Ford Motor and years of pressure from labor organizers improved working conditions in America and protected workers from schedules that jeopardized their health and safety.
Recent data indicates that the typical American worker is no longer adhering to the eight-hour workday. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 44 hours per week, or 8.8 hours per day.
A 2014 national Gallup poll put the average number at 47 hours per week, or 9.4 hours per day, with many saying they work 50 hours per week.
In demanding, competitive industries such as tech and finance, professionals typically work more than 60 hours a week and are constantly accessible by smartphone.
A recent Bloomberg Business week story shed light on American factories where workers work 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week.
When Americans are working more and taking less time off than ever, it’s helpful to see how America arrived at its “standard” workday.
In the early 1800s: “For nearly 200 years, organized or not, workers sought to limit the workday,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
“In the 19th century, even slaves ‘negotiated’ with masters for some time,” he says. (How Americans Work.)
1817: Welsh producer and labor rights activist Robert Owen coined the phrase “eight hours of labor, eight hours of entertainment, eight hours of rest,” dividing the day into three equal eight-hour parts.
The idea did not gain traction in Europe, but it made its way into America over the next few decades. According to Lichtenstein, American workers adopted a similar slogan following the Civil War.
1866: The now-defunct National Labor Union asks Congress to pass a law mandating the eight-hour workday. His efforts ultimately failed but helped put labor reform on the political map.
1867: According to the Chicago Historical Society, workers working “12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week” called the Illinois Legislature to limit the workday to eight hours.
The legislature passes the law, but it has a loophole that “allows employers to make longer contracts with their employees,” writes the Historical Society.
In response, a significant strike occurred in Chicago on May 1, spreading to other cities throughout the United States and Europe. That day came to be known as May Day.
1869: President Ulysses S. Grant issued a proclamation that guaranteed an eight-hour workday without a reduction in pay. But this only applies to government employees. (How Americans Work.)
The 1880s to 1900s: The movement to lower workers’ standard hours continues to grow. In 1898 the United Mine Workers won the eight-hour day. By 1905, the eight-hour workday was typical in the printing industry.
1926: Ford Motor issues a five-day, 40-hour work week to its employees in a new move from founder and business titan Henry Ford.
In a statement, Ford writes, “It is time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workers is either a lost time or a class privilege.”
1937: Auto workers at General Motors strike a plant in Flint, Michigan, protesting working conditions. The interaction between the GM and the workers ultimately helps in reducing the working hours.
1938: Political pressure continued to mount. On June 25, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which limits the work week to 44 hours, or 8.8 hours per day.
1940: On June 26, Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act, limiting the workweek to 40 hours. A few months later, on 24 October, the law went into effect. (How Americans Work.)
Today’s labor market is far more complex. The increase in contract workers, such as Uber drivers, or those who work in temporary positions for companies, means that these laws do not protect many US workers.
“Contract workers work 100 hours per week with no overtime,” Lichtenstein says. “Today, an eight-hour day is breaking from both ends.”
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