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History of the 40 Hour Workweek

In America and many other developed countries, employees work a 40 hour work week. Many of us take that 40 hour work week for granted: we assume a 40 hour work week is the norm and always has been the norm.

But it hasn’t always been that way: workers once had to fight tooth and nail for the right to work a 40 hour work week.

Where did the 40 hour workweek come from? How many hours per week did workers used to work? And could shorter work weeks be coming in the future? Here’s our history of the 40 hour workweek.

It Started with the Industrial Revolution in the UK

It’s no secret that the Industrial Revolution changed the world forever. Beginning in Britain, the Industrial Revolution introduced factory labor to many developed countries. It transformed working life and kickstarted the capitalist system. The average person was no longer in business for himself, he was in business for an employer. Wealth became concentrated among factory owners and landowners and cities grew.

The transformation of working life in the Industrial Revolution brought about many positive changes, but also many negative ones in terms of employee quality of life. Some of the negative changes included:

  • Child labor
  • Working days ranging from 10 to 16 hours for 6 days a week
  • Unsafe working conditions

Seeing these declining conditions, some labor movement visionaries decided to make changes to fix these problems.

Robert Owen Introduces 10 Hour Day in 1810

How do you feel after you work a 10 hour day? No matter where you work, a 10 hour day probably feels like a long shift.

But in 1810, a 10 hour workday felt like a vacation. In 1810, mill owner Robert Owen instituted the 10 hour workday at his mills in New Lanark, Scotland.

Not content with a 10 hour workday, Owen took the reduction a step further and implemented the 8 hour workday.

Eight Hours’ Labour, Eight Hours’ Recreation, Eight Hours’ Rest

Robert Owen used the slogan Eight Hours’ Labour, Eight Hours’ Recreation, Eight Hours’ Rest when he was pushing forward the idea of the eight hour workday.

Over the coming years, workers around the world took note of Owen’s movements. In 1847, for example, women and children across the UK were granted the ten hour workday. In 1848, French workers won the 12 hour workday.

In the 1840s and 1850s, skilled employees in Australia and New Zealand had won the right for an 8 hour workday.

Karl Marx Advocates for Shorter Working Days

Karl Marx, the founder of the communist ideology, advocated for shorter working days in Das Kapital:

“By extending the working day, therefore, capitalist production…not only produces a deterioration of human labour power by robbing it of its normal moral and physical conditions of development and activity, but also produces the premature exhaustion and death of this labour power itself.”

In other words, Karl Marx argued that longer workdays not only harmed the worker: they harmed the employer because workers were less productive. He was attempting to influence both employers and employees to change these standards.

Early Labor Movements in America

Just like in the UK, America’s 40 hour workweek started with a reduction to 12, then 10, then 8 hour workdays.

It began in Philadelphian in 1791, when the city’s carpenters went on strike for 10 hour days. By the 1830s, 10 hour days had become a general demand. Philadelphia would eventually become a hotbed for labor movements in America: in 1835, the city hosted the first general strike in North America when Irish coal workers prompted the city’s workers to leap into action against their employers.

While Philadelphia led the charge for 10 hour workdays, Chicago led the charge for 8 hour workdays.

In 1864, the 8 hour workday became a central demand of labor unions in Chicago. In response, the Illinois government passed a law in early 1867 granting an 8 hour workday to workers across the state. Unfortunately, that law was filled with loopholes that made it practically ineffective.

Soon after that 1867 law was passed, workers across the city of Chicago striked: On May 1, 1867, workers “shut down the city’s economy for a week”.

National Eight Hour Law Proclamation Issued by Ulysses Grant

In June 1868, Congress reacted to the push for 8 hour workdays by issuing 8 hour workday requirements for federal employees across the nation. This primarily only affected laborers and mechanics employed by the United States government.

President Andrew Jackson actually vetoed this act, but the law passed over his veto.

In response to the passing of the law, employers made a decision that essentially nullified the law: wages were immediately cut by 20%, which effectively meant that workers were no better off than they were before.

Not to be outsmarted, President Ulysses Grant issued a proclamation preventing federal government employees from having their wages cut.

In 1869, President Grant issued a National Eight Hour Law Proclamation. Here’s what that proclamation said:

“Whereas the act of Congress approved June 25, 1868, constituted, on and after that date, eight hours a day’s work for all laborers, workmen, and mechanics employed by or on behalf of the Government of the United States, and repealed all acts and parts of acts inconsistent therewith:

Now, therefore, I, Ulysses S. Grant, President of the United States, do hereby direct that from and after this date no reduction shall be made in the wages paid by the Government by the day to such laborers, workmen, and mechanics on account of such reduction of the hours of labor.”

This “fixed” the eight hour federal workday loophole and led to federal workers across the nation earning their original wages across a 40 hour workweek with 8 hour workdays.

Of course, these fixes only applied to certain federal workers. Workers across America started to take note of these changes and eventually demanded action.

Labor Movements in the 1870s Lead to “Eight Hour Leagues”

Understandably, workers across America were not happy that eight hour workdays only applied to federal employees. As a result, labor movements across the country began forming “Eight Hour Leagues” demanding the same rights for all employees.

In 1866, the National Labor Union issued a resolution in Baltimore that said the following:

“The first and great necessity of the present to free labour of this country from capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all States of the American Union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is achieved.”

Eight Hour Leagues held rallies and parades across America. Many of these efforts were successful – but only for certain trade groups.

A strike in New York City, for example, involved 100,000 people and would eventually lead to the implementation of 8 hour workdays – but only for building trades workers.

In some cases, workers received the 8 or 9 hour workday – but only if they also accepted pay cuts with the reduction in hours.

Ultimately, 8 hour workday movements at this time could be described as valiant but jumbled: certain workers in certain cities achieved 8 or 9 hour workdays, but it was hardly a nationwide movement.

These jumbled efforts took a devastating turn during the Haymarket Affair of 1886. During the Haymarket affair, workers rallying for 8 hour workdays were involved in a devastating riot. One worker threw a dynamite-laden bomb at police, leading to the deaths of seven police officers and four civilians. Dozens were wounded.

Ford Motor Company Believed Working 48 Hours per Week Was Bad for Worker Productivity

In America, most historians point to Ford as the originator of the 40 hour workweek nationwide.

Instead of jumbled labor movements taking place across America, one of America’s largest employers was taking a firm stance on fair labor standards. Other employers were all but forced to follow the standard set by Ford.

Ford Motor Company first advanced the idea of a 40 hour workweek in 1914. That year, Ford scaled back from a 48 hour workweek to a 40 hour workweek because company founder Henry Ford believed that too many hours were bad for workers’ productivity.

On January 5, 1914, Ford not only cut shifts from 9 hours to 8, but it also doubled pay to $5 per day.

After Ford started implementing the 40 hour workweek, many companies decided to follow suit. Companies didn’t do this for any altruistic reasons: instead, they saw that Ford’s productivity had increased, leading to a significant increase in profit margins (from $30 million to $60 million in two years).

Nevertheless, many business across America continued to work their employees in excess of 48 hours per week.

However, Ford had inadvertently kickstarted a labor movement across America. New unions began to form, strengthening the idea of a five day workweek with 8 hour shifts.

These labor movements culminated in 1937 in Flint, Michigan.

8 Hours for Work, 8 Hours for Rest, 8 Hours for What We Will

No individual organization was responsible for the passing of the 40 hour week. The responsibility was shared among countless labor unions and employees of the era.

Unions adopted the rallying cry of “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, and 8 hours for what we will.”

The hard work of these groups came to fruition in 1937 in Flint, Michigan, when workers staged a sit down strike against General Motors.

GM was accused of offering bleak working conditions, including no bathroom breaks, no benefits, no sick pay, and limited safety standards.

The sit down strike was historic because it brought together the United Auto Workers union, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union, General Motors, and the federal government.

Negotiations between the governing bodies ultimately improved working conditions at General Motors facilities.

More importantly, these negotiations also spurred the federal government to implement the wide-ranging Fair Labor Standards act in 1938. This was a critical part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Fair Labor Standards Act

The Fair Labor Standards Act was more than just a document requiring employees to work a maximum of 40 hours per week without overtime: it was a wide-ranging act that protected workers across the spectrum.

The Act also included minimum wage requirements, for example, as well as overtime pay and restrictions on child labor – three things that most of us take for granted today.

By 1950, 40 hour workweeks and 8 hour workdays were standard across America.

8 Hour Workdays and 40 Hour Workweeks Around the World

8 hour workdays and 40 hour workweeks were not an exclusively American invention. Around the same time Ford was introducing the 40 hour workweek in his factories, workers around the world were also winning new labor rights in their respective countries:

  • In Germany, workers at the Zeiss factories in Jena, Germany were awarded the 8 hour day at the turn of the 20th century.
  • In France, the Popular Front gave workers 40 hour workweeks as part of the 1936 Matignon agreements, 1 year before America would pass its own Fair Labor Standards Act.
  • In Russia, 8 hour workdays were introduced in 1917 soon after the October Revolution. The Soviet government issued an official decree, likely inspired by the words of Karl Marx.
  • In Spain, lengthy strikes threatened to cripple the economy. In 1919, a 44 day general strike involving 100,000 workers finally forced the government to implement additional labor rights. That year, the government acquiesced to worker demands by implementing an 8 hour workday, union recognition, and the rehiring of fired workers. Spain is also notable for being the first country in the world to pass a national law requiring 8 hour workdays.
  • In the United Kingdom, children were the first workers to receive an 8 hour workday: the Factory Act of 1833 ensured workers between ages 9 and 13 could only work 8 hours. Workers between ages 14 and 18 could only work 12 hours per day. Children under the age of 9 were required to go to school.
  • In Canada, labor movements largely followed those in the UK and United States. The Federation of Labour began advocating for 8 hour workdays starting in 1890.
  • In Mexico, the 8 hour workday and major labor rights were won in 1917. The Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920 led to the new Constitution of 1917. Article 123 in that Constitution gave workers the right to organize labor unions and strike. It also granted protection for female and children employees, limited workers to 8 hour workdays, and forced employers to pay employees a living wage.
  • In Australia, gold rushes had attracted thousands of skilled tradesmen to the country in the 19th century. These skilled tradespeople eventually organized to implement an 8 hour workday in 1856. The slogan “888” could be seen on buildings across the country, referring to 8 hours of work, 8 hours of rest, and 8 hours of leisure. In 1855, the Stonemasons’ Society in Sydney issued an ultimatum to employers stating that after six months, masons would only work an 8 hour day. Similar movements took place across the country in an effort to extend 8 hour workdays to other professions. Victoria passed the Victoria Eight Hours Act in 1916, granting eight hour workdays to all workers in the state. By the 1920s, the 8 hour workday was standard across the entire country.
  • New Zealand followed a similar trajectory to Australia, although their movement for 8 hour workdays began slightly earlier, in 1840, when one carpenter refused to work more than 8 hours a day erecting a store for a local merchant. New Zealand is actually credited with being the first country to adopt the 8 hour workday: in October 1840, carpenters across city of Wellington pledged to work no more than 8 hours a day, and anyone offending this rule “should be ducked into the harbour.”

How Long Will the 40 Hour Workweek Last?

40 hour workweeks have been standard across America for the last 50+ years. But things could change in the near future.

In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that the world would be working 15 hour workweeks by 2030 due to technological advances.

We’re a long ways away from a 15 hour workweek, but labor movements and private businesses around the world are experimenting with new types of workweeks.

Shorter workweeks can mean healthier employees, for example. Others argue that shorter workweeks makes people more focused because they have a limited amount of time in which to get things done.

While many Americans may believe 40 hour workweeks are standard, Americans work longer hours than virtually all other developed countries (aside from Singapore and Korea).

CNN Money recently claimed that the average German worker puts in 394 fewer hours than the average American every year. That’s equivalent to 49 eight hour days annually. Obviously, this hasn’t affected Germany’s economy, since it’s the 4th largest economy in the nation despite being 17th in terms of population.

Sweden and Norway also maintain strong economies despite working fewer hours, on average, than most other developed nations.

Nevertheless, 40 hour workweeks remain standard in America and many other countries. But who knows how many hours we’ll work per week in the future?



About Johnson Hur

After having graduated with a degree in Finance and working for a Fortune 500 company for several years, Johnson decided to follow his passion by embarking on a path to the digital world. He has over 8 years of experience with large companies setting marketing strategy.

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