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rows of cars side by side i a warehose
Ford Motors delivery department. Caufield & Shook, c 1924. (Library of Congress)

40 Hours, 5 Days

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Since the pandemic, workers and employers have been grappling with how and even where employees work. There have been so many articles, discussions, and all sorts of social media commentary on the subject, that it is unsurprising that attention has occasionally turned to the 40-hour work week. It seems old-fashioned to some today, but when it was introduced, the 40-hour work week was considered a bit revolutionary.

Like many places, for much of its history, the United States had no set or standardized work schedule in the way we think of the work week today. The arrival and growth of factories in the U.S., however, changed discussions about work.

three women stand in line in front of an employee bulletin board at the time clock two look at the camera while one looks forward the woman in print is having here time card punched in
Employees of Parke, Davis and Company registering on time recorder. Arthur S. Siegel, 1943. (FSA/OWI Collection / Library of Congress)

In the early 1920s, the Ford Motor Company, a company known for its dominance in the automotive industry and innovative assembly line practices, looked to change how it scheduled its workers. The company announced a five-day, 40-hour work week for company plants in September 1926, but they didn’t come to this decision overnight. As far back as March 1922, Edsel Ford was quoted in the New York Herald, stating:

“In making the announcement Mr. Ford said he had reached the conclusion that the forty hour week was practical, that the additional day of rest would prove a benefit to the workers and that the production schedules of the Ford industries could be so arranged as to maintain the present output on the curtailed working week.

’Every man,’ Mr. Ford’s announcement said, ‘needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation. The Ford company always has sought to promote ideal home life for Its employees. We believe that in order to live properly every man should have more time to spend with his family, more time for self-improvement, more time for building up the place called home.’

’It will mean work for 3,000 more men. It will mean more machinery. The goal cannot be fully realized at once, but as soon as possible it is the aim of the company to adjust its business so that it can be carried on without work on Saturday and Sunday.’“

That 1922 article quoted Ford as saying, “It cannot be fully realized at once,” which may explain why it wasn’t until 1926 that the company fully implemented this change. At the end of September, the company announcement hit the press, but a September 27, 1926 Christian Science Monitor article indicated that the practice had been pretty much in effect since July in some plant departments. I did see one article that indicated the five-day-week schedule started back in February 1926, but that seems to have been very limited because it indicated the company was considering a move to a six-day-week schedule.

The October 15, 1926, issue of Ford News said the following:

“Five working days of eight hours, with no overtimes, is to constitute a week’s work for U.S. company employees. This announcement, given recently to the press, marks the culmination of years of preparation for this noteworthy step in industrial evolution. Its significance has been approached in the industrial world only by the announcement twelve years ago of the five-dollar a-day minimum wage.”

Ford’s decision to change to a five-day work week didn’t happen in a vacuum, as there were numerous articles on the topic in 1926 alone. News reporting showed that the building industry was debating the issue, while some textile mills in New Hampshire seem to have already instituted it.

In the wake of the announcement, opinions were divided. Economists debated Ford’s decision while some executives thought it was a bad idea. Opinion was also divided among labor advocates, with some saying it benefited the Ford company more than it did the workers, while others thought it would be good for labor and workers regardless of the reasons (the divided opinion seems to have been present in 1922 as well).

Ford’s prominence and size meant that other companies eventually followed their lead. Some companies, like Kellogg’s, took Ford’s decision as an opportunity, but went with what worked for them. For Kellogg’s, this turned out to be 6-hour shifts. Then in 1938, the federal government pretty much settled the discussion with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

MAXIMUM HOURS—Sec. 7. (s) No employer shall, except as otherwise provided in this section, employ any of his employees who is engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce—(1) for a workweek longer than forty-four hours during the first year from the effective date of this section, (2) for a workweek longer than forty-two hours during the second year from such date, or (3) for a workweek longer than forty hours after the expiration of the second year from such date, unless such employee receives compensation for his employment in excess of the hours above specified at a rate of less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed. (b) No employer shall be deemed to have violated subsection (a) by employing any employee for a workweek in excess of that specified in such subsection without paying the compensation for overtime employment prescribed therein if such employee is so employed--
From the Fair Labor Standards Act. 52 Stat 1063 (Library of Congress)

Much has changed in the workplace since 1926. The laws related to work, as well as when and how much people can work in a day, have changed. Then there are the changes to offices themselves. The future will bring even more change; just do an internet search on the future of work. You will see results related to hybrid work or digital nomads, pieces about how AI will transform the workplace, and even stories about companies experimenting with four-day work weeks.

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  1. This article needs contextual information. The struggle for the 8 hour day had been waged by the labor movement since the Civil War, and scholars have shown the originators of the idea had been inspired by the end of slave labor to dream of a way of controlling their own time. The quest was derailed by the Haymarket events, which was part of a major drive and general strikes in 1886. In WWI, the government granted an 8 hour day through mediation to the railroad workers to end a strike for the shorter work week. Ford, meanwhile, even in the 1920s worked workers to exhaustion even if they considered an 8 hour day.

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