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date: 07 December 2022

American Labor and the Working Daylocked

American Labor and the Working Daylocked

  • Philipp ReickPhilipp ReickAarhus University

Summary

From the first local strikes in the late 18th century to the massive eight-hour movement that shook the country a century later, the length of the working day has been one of the most contentious issues in the history of American labor. Organized workers have fought for shorter hours for various reasons. If they were to be good citizens, workers needed time to follow the news and attend political rallies, to visit lectures and museums, and to perform civic duties. Shorter-hour activists also defended worktime reduction as a tool for moral betterment. Workers needed time to attend religious services and be involved in religious associations, to become better spouses and parents, and to refine their customs and manners through exposure to literature, music, and the arts. Trade unions also promoted shorter hours as sound economic policy. Especially when joblessness was rampant, unionists argued that shorter working days would help distribute available work more evenly among the workforce. During times of economic growth, they shifted the focus to productivity and consumption, arguing that well-rested workers not only performed better, but also had the time to purchase and enjoy the products and services they helped create. As organized labor tended to give preference to full employment and consumption over further working time reductions in the aftermath of the New Deal, the hour issue took a backseat in the second half of the 20th century. It reentered the debate, however, in the late 2000s when high-tech and knowledge industries started to experiment with compressed workweek models. Given the widespread experience of remote work and temporary working time reductions during the Covid-19 pandemic, the question of how much time Americans should, must, and want to spend at work is likely to remain in the focus of public attention.

Subjects

  • Labor and Working Class History

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