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The history of the American workweek
Want more lessons from history dba experience? - try 1840-1940 overall, or zoom in on 1938-40, and the the old progressive GOP's workweek secret...
Ken Burns, we desperately need you to do a history of the American workweek - it's the most important neglected phenomenon in American history.
See also Bill McGaughey's *Short History of Shorter Working Hours, and Roediger & Foner's 1988 scholarly work, Our Own Time.

For most of American history, we have used workweek reduction to maintain employment and markets and keep government small. For a century and a half as our technology advanced, we trimmed the workday and the workweek and crudely converted overtime into training and hiring.

We started in 1776 with six or seven 12-hour workdays - an over-80-hour workweek, with longer days in summer and shorter days in winter according to seasonal sunlight. For a century and a half, we downsized the workweek to spread among more potential consumers the market-demanded work still not yet taken over by inventions or immigrants - and spread the market-provided wages that went along with it - no minimum wage laws required.

Even haphazardly, this worked well enough that labor supply kept from overwhelming labor demand, or maybe even starved it a bit so market forces actually raised wages and consumer spending - without government intervention. Repeated cuts in the workweek kept the core of the economy in rough balance so the whole thing stayed in general alignment with rising levels of work-saving technology. A balanced center balances everything else, so we did not need big government (and big national debt and eventual taxes) to play that role.

Through the eighteen-teens, -twenties and -thirties (1810-1840), employers introduced steam power into their factories and laid off employees, creating labor surplus and cutting pay (and with it, consumer spending - hence lots of depressions). Employees, now a surplus commodity, were becoming desperate so they generally put up with it.

But 1840-1940, workweek reduction from over 80 hours really got going. Around 1840, employers installed new gas lighting in their factories and tried to extend long summer hours into winter. Early gas lighting was smoky, smelly, and a fire hazard, and employees had finally put up with all they could. "Workforce discipline" was not the problem despite management's constant well-funded complaints about it. The real problem was management discipline. Employees started organizing into unions to fight employers' attempts to invade their minuscule personal time and restrict their freedom, such as it was. Generally, they "lost the battles but won the war." They fought for and won the ten-hour day by the end of the Civil War, and the eight-hour day by the beginning of World War II.

It took America's employees 25 years to win the ten-hour day - 1840-1865 - the war really "helped" because it killed off the wage-depressing labor surplus of peace, raised pay and consumer spending, and produced the usual "wartime prosperity" thanks to the perceived "shortage" of labor = actually a balance , at last, of labor and employment, job-seekers and job-openings. After the Civil War, it took employees three times as long, 75 years, to win the eight-hour day and the 40-hour week (1865-1940, 75 years). Thus the workweek was cut in half from 1840 to 1940 - and instead of being the End of the World as employers were always warning at every step of the way, people had more time and money to shop and the foundations of the economy, consumer markets, were fuller.

If it takes the same three-times-longer (25x3=75, 75x3=225) to make the next step (to fluctuating adjustment of the workweek against un(der)employment). we won't get there until (1940+225=) 2165 - but here's hoping we make it by 2100. Then we can get to work balancing the money variables.

The Republican contribution (before they went nuts and UNseparated church & state)

Downward workweek adjustment has been a major Republican (GOP) strategy since the birth of the party in the 1850s. Believe it or not, there was a time when the Republican Party was THE progressive party in America after the Democrats renounced the Declaration of Independence (1844) so they could embrace slavery and slave-owners. The backlash gradually created a Republican Party that actually worried about the longer-term future and wanted to enhance American freedom by abolishing slavery and increasing free time - by limiting the workweek, thus easing the ever-tougher competition for jobs and its stifling effect on wages and markets. Nine of the 14 GOP administrations in the first century of GOP history made significant use of this strategy:

Overall, shorter hours was a basic gauge of progress for Americans and many other nationalities from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the restoration of Depression-level labor surplus around 1970 by the grownup babyboomers.
True the official workweek didn't get lowered at all after the 40-40-40 Plan (40maxwkwk-40minwage-1940). However, lots of industries cut to 37 1/2 hours (even Wall Street at least for clerks) and 35 hours (academe, insurance...) till the plateauing of wages in the 70s and the start of the long downhill run during the Me Decade of the 80s.
There were all kinds of soundbytes and metaphors in common use over that roughly 150-year period up from 1820-30 to 1970-80 in order to push "full time" employment down as the level of worksaving technology went up. My job as a newstracking linguist is to update them and sex them up.
In 1980, the GOP got in bed with the Christian Coalition aka Religious Right to win the election. The historic separation of Church and State began to vanish, the GOP began dumbing down with talkshow hosts seeking bigger audiences regardless of rant. With only one truly political party left, America's diagonally downward spiral steepened. In 1981, Reagan squelched the air-traffic controllers who were demanding not only pay increases but also "shorter hours to relieve the strain of their high-tension jobs." (David S. Broder in op/ed "Obama's welcome display of backbone," 4/01/2009 SeattleTimes.nwsource.com.) Reagan ended the cold war in 1989 but we're still stuck with our frozen, 74-year outdated, pre-computer workweek - and the massive military-industrial makework program = the "conservative's" makework campaign.
However, the discussion of shorter hours has already gone mini-viral several times. The latest time was in January(?) when a London thinktank came out with a provocative recommendation for a 21-hour workweek(!) and in February, a DC thinktank (NELP) had one-day conference on worksharing.
Plus there's always constant low-level grumbling about how do we get more work-life balance and why is Europe better off than us/US and why don't we copy German worksharing (Kurzarbeit), or why wouldn't it work here, etc. Timesizing spins shorter hours away from a mere lifestyle choice toward an urgent core system upgrade required for sustainability). And there are ongoing struggles to enact worksharing in states that still don't have it.
Shorter hours kind of coughed back into discussability in the big reaction to Juliet Schor's The Overworked American in 1991, though that and Ben Hunnicutt's Work Without End (1988 Iowa City) didn't get much traction till John DeGraaf of the video Affluenza got interested and held a few yearly conferences in the early Y2Ks - Kevin Hassett (Republican thinktanker) started pushing the German success in 2009 and this even produced a pro-worksharing story on 4/28/2014 from a redneck pro-gun group called GreatAmericanPatriot.com.
We have changed the potential blessing of our incredible technology into a curse by freezing the 1940 workweek forever. We have entered the 21st Century with more and more efficient technology and less and less time for our families and our communities. How long are we going to stay this stupid?! And don't say "That's the new reality of the global economy"! Our economic core isn't God-given. We designed it this way and we can redesign it. And we will eventually do so - the sooner, the better. And hopefully not after every other nation has surpassed and humiliated us.

We don't need government job creation in any way, shape or form. We just need to spread the private-sector work - and skills - to include everyone. When everyone is included and self-supporting, taxpayers can stop supporting them and business will have a much bigger domestic customer base. If we can't share the easy things - skills and work, we'll never be able to healthily share the hard things - income and wealth. And if we don't find a way to centrifuge money soon, we're going to be a huge Third-World Haiti. It doesn't matter how much money a country has, if 99% of it is owned by 1% of the population (and there's absolutely nothing stopping that from happening in America at the moment, you have one miserable dirt-poor Third-World situation with a tiny fraction of the economic dynamism it has now, let alone what it could have.

Executives, CEOs - give this a chance. Stop starving your own potentially gigantic customer base of time and money. Reinvest in your employees - your "human capital" - at an appropriately colossal level. The future will look back on what you've been doing so far, shake their heads and say, "Colossal failure to reinvest!" And concentrating the profits in your own pay and perks does not count as reinvestment. That's just putting spending power "on ice" in a huge black hole of money at the top. It's strangling "the goose that lays the golden eggs." The more money you redistribute up the income scale into the tiny topmost brackets, the more you decelerate it, decirculate it and deactivate it. It is you, the wealthy, who create recessions and depressions, just by this very process of using downsizing to clobber payroll (and consumer spending!) and with an efficiency that Communists would envy, redistribute the nation's money supply to yourselves. Result? You are sacrificing your economic foundations (the consumer base and the employment basement) for mere pecking order. How stupid is that?! And week by week you are becoming less secure, as insulated and isolated rulers across North Africa are currently finding out.

The American economy is so big, we don't need exports. Sacrificing American industries and jobs - and the 70% of the American economy that's based on domestic consumption - for the sake of the less than 30% of the economy represented by international trade - in the name of the dogma of Free Trade or sacrosanct Globalization - is just nuts. We need only stop concentrating skills, employment and wealth in the topmost income brackets where people have neither the time nor the need to spend on any significant percentage of their astronomical incomes. And a smoothly engineered cut in the background labor surplus can centrifuge these skills, jobs, and paychecks and deliver economic growth on a vast wartime scale without war.

"...Our balking, backfiring profits economy can - by injecting one planned adjustment
- be made to work in socially desirable ways,
and even be made to satisfy high-grade engineering standards of efficiency,
with even less involved governmental interference and industrial control than we already have."

Arthur Dahlberg, Jobs, Machines and Capitalism (1932!)

For more details, see our laypersons' guide Timesizing, Not Downsizing put out as a campaign piece during the 1998 race for Joe Kennedy's empty Congressional seat. The handbook is available online from *Amazon.com and at the Harvard Square Coop, 3rd floor (business & economics sections) in Cambridge, Mass.

Questions, comments, feedback? Phone 617-623-8080 (Boston) or email us.


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