I often ask my students in what year the United States passed a law limiting the length of the workweek. And they dutifully respond: 1919? 1928? 1935?
Well, of course, it’s a trick question. There is no legally mandated limit on the length of the workweek. Such a law has never been passed in the United States. And one of the consequences is that Americans now work longer hours than any other rich nation: 1787 hours a year per worker in 2011, close to the OECD average of 1776 and much longer than such countries as the Netherlands (1379), Germany (1399), and the United Kingdom (1625).
But apparently we came close, in 1933. On 6 April of that year, the Black-Connery Bill 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. The bill was opposed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was subsequently buried in the House, when it emerged five years later as the Fair Labor Standards Act with all its 30-hour teeth pulled.
As Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt explains,
Certainly, the end of the shorter hour movement has many dimensions and causes which must be explored. But the short narrative of events presented in this essay suggest two important dimensions and causes-one social, the other political. Among the reasons for the ending of the shorter hour movement was the fact that American attitudes toward free time changed. For over a century, American workers and their supporters valued shorter hours. They did so for a variety of reasons-some economic and some non-pecuniary. Only higher wages competed with this issue for workers’ attention. During the 1920s and early 1930s labor and other groups and individuals saw in “the progressive shortening of the hours of labor” a practical foundation for liberal idealism as well as a necessary remedy for economic ills. But during the Depression, free time took the form of massive unemployment. Instead of accepting labor’s 30 hour week remedy, Roosevelt and the majority of Americans saw this free time as a tragedy that had to be eliminated by increasing economic activity-an activity stimulated by government spending if necessary. The concept of free time as leisure-a natural part of economic advance and a foil to materialistic values was abandoned. The reform continuum in this one area was broken by Roosevelt’s New Deal and by the modern adherence to economic growth as the great liberal goal.
The result is that, today, American workers are forced to have the freedom to remain on the job for at least 40 hours a week, while millions of their fellow workers remain jobless, and my question to students remains a trick one.
* I haven’t been able to find an on-line version of the 1933 bill. But here’s a link to the 1934 version:
Whereas our private productive system is dependent for its own customers chiefly upon its own employees, who cannot buy the output of the system unless producers give them jobs at wages adequate to exchange for the products; and Whereas private business has not been able, and is not now able, to give jobs to those who need them, on past or existing hours of labor . . .
SEC. 2. (a) No article or commodity shall be purchased by the United States, or any department or organization thereof, from any business enterprise operating contrary to any provision of this Act, or if such article or commodity was produced or manufactured in any mine, quarry, mill, cannery, workshop, factory, or manufacturing establishment situated in the United States, in which any person, except officers, executives, and superintendents, and their personal and immediate clerical assistants, was employed, after the date this Act takes effect, more than five days in any week or more than six hours in any day.