Expansion of overtime rules overdue; the important history of eight hour work days

An old time card machine (Wikimedia)
An old time card machine (Wikimedia)

The single best thing that could happen for American families, waistlines, sanity, and even worker productivity would be an update to American overtime pay rules.  President Obama is planning to expand the number of workers entitled to overtime pay by several million, perhaps through administrative order.  The step is sure to meet fierce opposition from industry. It almost certainly won’t go nearly far enough. But it is an important first step.

You all know the story — 40-hour work weeks have largely disappeared from the American worker landscape.  This disappearance has led to mountainous problems. And not a small number of labor lawsuits.   The Labor Department’s current distinction between exempt and non-exempt employees is older than the Internet. Time for a radical change.

Imagine how different your life would be if your boss had to think, for just a moment, that asking you to review an email on Saturday night would cost the company money.   I predict an increase in efficiency as time would again have value. Many people both employers and employees — confuse volume with productivity.  But as is often the case, we moderns are arrogant in our ways, and ignorant of our past.  For research on a book project I am considering, I recently wrote an essay about the origins of the 40-hour work week, and the eight-hour day.  Turns out, our ancestors knew a lot about work-life balance.  Here is a segment of that essay, called Eight-Eight-Eight

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“Eight hours labour.  Eight hours recreation. Eight hours rest.” Or simply, 8-8-8.

That notion might sound radical, or even utopian.  It was – when first coined in 1817 by Welsh Socialist Robert Owen.  A visionary, Owen ran a cotton mill in a small village named New Lanark near Glascow where he insisted that his employees not overwork. He even provided recreation and education for youth. His published works made him an intellectual leader in Europe’s socialist movement, which began to take hold in the common suffering and misery that followed the Napoleanic wars.

“Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” also was also a reaction to the punishing life changes of the Industrial Revolution. Adults who typically would have enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy as farm workers in the 1700s now found themselves in the 1800s working 10, 12, even 16 hours per day in urban factories. A slowly rising, urban middle class began to demand a bigger voice in governing, and more control over day to day life, a notion that took hold in what historians now call the Chartist Movement, which predates the labor movement.

Chartists in the U.K. failed, repeatedly, and many of their leaders were shipped to Australia. There, they took up the cause again, and during the 1850s, they inspired the formation of unions using the symbol 8-8-8 wherever they met.  Travelers to Melbourne can still see 8-8-8 logos on some union buildings.

On April 21, 1856, stonemasons working on construction of the University of Melbourne decided the time was right. Then, a typical mason work week was 58 hours – five 10 hour days, followed by an 8 hour day on Saturday. But the masons were well organized, and they knew their skilled labor could not simply be replaced. Australia’s Gold Rush meant there was too much money to be made for owners to endure a work stoppage, and that tipped the scales in favor of laborers. That day, in a “downing of tools,” stonemasons walked off the job and marched on Parliament in what is now known as the “Eight Hour Day Strike.” Workers were granted an eight hour day, and a 40-hour work week, on the spot.

During the next 50 years, the 40-hour work week spread around the globe through protests, strikes, legislation, and revolution. France, Canada, Spain, even Iran all signed up for some version of 8-8-8. Economic recession and unemployment nudged hours up; prosperity nudged hours down.  But 8-8-8 became a worldwide standard.

Owen came to the U.S. in the 1820s, but his utopian ideas took little hold. He tried to open a community work cooperative, modeled after New Lanark, in New Harmony, Ind., but it failed within three years, and he returned to Britain.  Owen’s idealism did have a lasting legacy on the States, however. His oldest son became a member of Congress and drafted the bill that led to creation of the Smithsonian Institution.

America’s 8-8-8 moment came much later, on Jan. 5, 1914. That day, Henry Ford made public a plan to keep his busy auto plants open 24 hours a day without driving his employees mad. He created a third shift, and declared worker days would be capped at 8 hours.

“It is our belief,” said Ford Treasurer James Couzens, according to the New York Times that day, “that social justice begins at home. We want those who have helped us to produce this great institution and are helping to maintain it to share our prosperity.” Ford also announced pay hikes and profit sharing that day.

Ford was shrewd; he was trying to cut down on employee turnover, betting that happier workers would be more productive. Within two years, Ford’s profits doubled. American companies fell over themselves imitating Ford’s capitalist revolution. Two years later, the Adamson Act limited railroad workers to eight-hour days, the first time U.S. law regulated private company work rules.  It took 20 more years, but the Federal Labor Standards Act – a product of the Depression and the New Deal – enforced 40 hour weeks for wide swaths of American workers.

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About Bob Sullivan 1463 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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