Is It Time for the 8-Hour Day?

This op-ed ran on June 18 in the Detroit Free Press, the Miami Herald, and other Knight-Ridder papers. Following the article are responses from a number of readers on their experiences with the ever-lengthening American workday. Labor Notes hopes to have interactive features in the future that will allow readers to comment, whine, moan, or whatever on selected articles.

On May 18 of this year, after eight hours of work on a springtime Saturday, 48 assembly line workers in Lordstown, Ohio, spontaneously walked off their jobs. After calling them in to work a mandatory shift building GM’s Cavaliers and Sunfires, management had suddenly changed the schedule to nine hours.

“It’s graduation season, their kids’ soccer tournament season,” one veteran worker explained. “These guys said, `We’ve got a life.’”

It was ninety years ago, on June 19, that Congress granted federal employees the eight-hour day. Under the New Deal, in 1938, this right was extended to all American workers, and the normal work week became five eight-hour days, with extra pay-“time-and-a-half”--when the employer required more than 40 hours.

But today, the eight-hour day and the forty-hour week are wishful thinking for many Americans, at least those unwilling to take matters into their own hands as the Lordstown workers did. (Ironically, the punishment managers meted out for the workers’ insubordination was thirty days’ time off.)

According to a survey by the Families and Work Institute, employed American men put in an average of 49 work hours a week-there goes Saturday-and women 42 hours. That’s paid work, not housework and cutting the grass. The Department of Labor reports that almost eleven million people regularly work over 60 hours per week.

During the 1990s boom -- when the economy was supposed to be carrying us all to new heights of affluence -- most families that made gains did so not through the stock market but through more time on the job. Hours paid as overtime increased by half from 1991 to 1997.

It’s not just members of the lunch bucket brigade who feel like wage slaves. Business Week reports that white-collar workers too, from retail managers to computer programmers to claims adjusters, are fed up with working nights and weekends. E-technology was supposed to make these information workers more efficient-and it has. But it has also extended their workplace, and thus their workday, into the once-sacred precincts of the home. For many workers any minute of the day is now fair game to add to the daily slog. Managing their e-mail at night or during their commute is the only way, they say, that they can handle their swelling workloads.

To make matters worse, these workers are not even paid for their extra time, because their companies classify them as “managers,” exempt from the wage-hour laws. White-collar workers at General Dynamics, U-Haul, Taco Bell, Pepsi-Cola, Borders Books, Pacific Bell, Bridgestone/Firestone, and Wal-Mart have all sued their bosses for overtime pay.

If workers are not benefiting from all those extra hours, someone is. Long hours are a big reason for companies’ record-breaking productivity leap in the 90’s (along with technology gains and flat wages). Between 1991 and 1998, if employers had hired new workers instead of increasing overtime, nearly twice as many production worker jobs would have been created.

Is the eight-hour day a relic of a bygone era? Back in the nineteenth century, American factory workers were the vanguard of the international quest for shorter hours, marching and striking by the hundreds of thousands to pressure employers and government. Their slogan was “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”

Their example inspired union movements in other countries to demand “bread and roses”-money, yes, but also time to stop and smell the flowers. In Europe, they succeeded, eventually. France and Germany have both instituted the 35-hour week.

And throughout Europe, paid vacations are four to six weeks, by law. American workers, on the other hand, have no legal right to a vacation at all.

We think of Protestant-ethic Germany and Japan as exemplars of the work ethic, but it’s Americans who clock more annual hours than in any other industrial nation--almost two weeks more than in Japan and two months more than in Germany.

We need to get back to the eight-hour day. This means abolishing mandatory overtime either by law or by contract. And it means that many of us should stop donating our time to our employers, and enjoy eight hours for rest and eight hours for what we will.


“I just wanted to take a moment (out of my workday!) to respond to your June 18 editorial. I couldn't agree more. I moved to Miami a year ago and between the 8.5 required work day (1/2 hr lunch) and the 1-1.5 hr commute, I basically spend at least 10 hrs a day dedicated to work -- talk about stress and time management - sheesh - now there's a fantasy. It's insane, and I have no energy and no life after that. In Oregon, where I lived before, I worked an 8 hr day, which included an hour lunch, and I had a 10-15 minute commute. Due to an illness in my family (a parent), I returned to Miami. I like my work but it makes me so mad that I have no personal life, no time to be creative, no energy for other interests or classes and really no options besides winning the lottery. Also, why do other civilized countries get 4-6 weeks of vacation? What is wrong with this country?”

-Melinda Hoder from Miami, FL

“I read your article in today's Herald and agree wholeheartedly. Some things need to be changed. I have been retired from Miami-Dade County Parks & Recreation Department now going on four years. However, during my tenure in a supervisor capacity I worked many hours overtime and have never been compensated as have hundreds of other supervisors. It was understood when one was a supervisor that one would work overtime occasionally and according to the by-laws would receive compensation, ‘not hour for hour, but they would allow two days off during a pay period with their immediate supervisor's approval’. This was of course never allowed by 95% of the supervisors. On one occasion I had lost a couple of my key employees and ended up working 10 hour days, seven days a week for over a four month period. When I approached my immediate supervisor about my problem and asked him about my requisitions sent in several months prior for replacements of those employees I noticed that they were still sitting on his desk. I told him I was burned out and could no longer work the number of hours I was forced to do to keep my facility operating. His response was on my next annual evaluation: It is expected for a supervisor to work a minimum of 48 hours per week. My response was to work 48 hours per week instead of 70 hours. I was transferred within a month. I presented my complaints to our union. They did nothing.

“As the years progressed I continued to work nine hours per day and sometimes would be called by security personnel in the middle of the night for emergencies (I was in charge of security of the facility I was at.), and would be required to be on the job during my regular working hours. I recorded my hours on the payroll forms and sent them in via inter office mail to payroll. They would enter eight hours per day and my pay would reflect 40 hours per week. As far as I am aware, that is falsifying county documents. Many of my co-workers have been similarly cheated, but the county continues this course of action. Something needs to be done.”

“Your above captioned piece published in today's (06/18/02)Miami Herald really hit home. In retail where I am a "manager" work conditions are something out of a nineteenth century sweat shop. There are fewer and fewer hourly employees and more "managers in training" which is a ploy to avoid paying over time and trim benefits. In the store where I work which is a part of a nation wide chain with over 300 retail stores a manager is scheduled for 45 hours per week but is invariably required to work 50 plus hours per week while the few hourly employees are strictly held to less than 40 hours. Turn over is very high but upper management views this as just part of doing business.



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

“What to do? Organize? But how? By far the majority of so called managers I know are not only ignorant of unionism but are scared to death to ever talk about the subject. Governmental action? Who cares about the lowly retail worker anyway?”

-T. A. Cathey from Miami, FL

“This article is so very true. I am in the UAW at Diamler-Chrysler and we are working nine hours m-f and eight on sat. This is mandatory. Just this week they posted 7 days for four weeks is mandatory so the plant can try and reach its build out in production for the end of the year. The machining departments are mandatory ten hours 7 days. There always seems to be a loop hole in our contract to let management do what they like with us. What ever did happen to the 40 hour work week??? Thanks for writing this at the perfect time for me, for iIam trying to research this topic for which little time I have.”

“I read and enjoyed your article in the Freeport Journal Standard, this past weekend. I am a Sr. VP in a large bank covering 24 states. I work an average 55-60 hours/week year round. I would fall into the 11million category that do this. ARE WE CRAZY OR WHAT???? It's an expectation of the company I work for. Do more with less. Make our company worth more to shareholders (I'm one of them)! But, at what expense do we do this?....I'm sure our health and our families.

I find it ironic that people are recognized for the great jobs they do at work by being promoted and being involved in the community. Some people work all these hours and are expected, and do, get heavily involved in local boards and volunteer work because of "networking opportunities" to build more business, etc. But, where, oh where, do we ever see or acknowledge anyone for being a great parent because they are not always gone from home due to work or community involvement. I'd love to be involved in many more things than I am, but I have very little time as it is to be with family and have time for myself.

“We need the people in this country who are working all these hours to unite and say enough is enough. We should not be made to feel like if we leave at 5:00 it's a sin...or if we don't take work home, I'm not committed to my job. Expectations for getting more from less have escalated to unrealistic levels, therefore we put in the long hours. We've created a stereotype (mostly from men in high places) whereby mostly "men" worked long hours and were committed to the community because those men in high places typically come home and their dinner is ready and their laundry is done, etc. Of course, this didn't happen overnight, but we women still have a huge glass ceiling to overcome in that we have all these obligations at home, work 60 hours a week and are expected to be involved in the community...where does it stop before we crash.”

-Cindy Werkheiser

“I read and enjoyed a reprint of your article in today's (6-26-02) Sacramento Bee.

It related to my personal experience so closely in one place that I thought you were actually speaking of me. I'll give you a little of my history to illustrate my point: I was in the United States Air Force for 20 years, 3 months, and 7 days (not that I counted mind you). After retirement I just hung for about a year until my wife told me to get a job, any job, she didn't care and get out of the apartment.

There followed a series of minimum wage jobs, then I settled on Security as a profession. In early 1992 I started out as a security guard with Vanguard Security Services of Sacramento California, and was assigned to the building where the State Controllers Office was. I met the scumbag himself (now governor scumbag himself) in person several times (he makes a REAL first, second, third, etc. impression on people). This was my first job as a new civilian that was more than minimum wage. Actually, I kind of enjoyed the work.

“A year later, I was transferred to Hewlett-Packard Roseville. Here I discovered that I enjoyed industrial security work, and the pay is a little better too. About two years after I went to H-P, Vanguard Security Services was reabsorbed by American Protective Services (APS), it's parent company. Needless to say our corporate culture changed completely. Pay raises became smaller and further apart. There was more emphasis placed on the appearance rather than true improvements in our customers security coverage. The upshot of which was APS lost the contract to Barton Protective Services in the fiscal year starting June 02,2000.

I was offered $10.50/hr to be a Shift Supervisor at RP/RQ Complex (a 1.8m sq. ft manufacturing complex) so I took it. Things went on in a less than optimal manner. The supervisors, 16 of us covering five separate facilities spread across a lineal distance of more than forty miles on a 24/7 basis. The "takeover bump" was especially severe as Barton had missed the estimate of manning required by 30 people. It was a happy time for us overtime workers. Then the shoe dropped, as the manning came up Supervisors were denied overtime because "It cost too much". This caused me a lot of personal heartburn as now most of the 29 people who worked for me now earned more than I did.

“We now get to the point of this longwinded missive.

“In April 2001 at a supervisor/management meeting we were presented with the August changes that Hewlett-Packard was "forcing" on Barton. One of the changes was that Shift Supervisors were to become SHIFT MANAGERS and would become a salaried positions. According to the documents we were presented with that were dated February 2000, there would be only eight of them to cover the same coverage. The proposed salary was in the 22k to 35k region. and the proposed work year for this position was 2280 hours, or 200 hours more than the standard work year for wage earners.

“It doesn't take a lot of smarts to figure out that this works out to a wage of $9.65 to $15.35 per hour with a break-even point of $23940.00 for a $10.50 wage rate. Since I wouldn't be getting paid twice the responsibility, overtime for extra hours, and someone had to fill in for vacations, sick time, or just plain holes in the schedule, this could turn out to be a 60 hour/week job with a 40 hour/weel paycheck. I declined the position. It was a lose-lose situation. As it turns out, I was right to leave Barton when I did. We were being lied to and cheated on a daily basis.

“I left Barton on July 31, 2001 and went to work as a lobby officer for Pinkerton at $10.50 per hour on August the 4th.I will never sign a contract for a position as a salaried individual again my military experience has stood me in good stead.”

-Victor Lemley

“I started working full time in May 1963, 10 hours per day, seven days a week for one dollar per hour. Fortunately, I progressed well beyond that level of compensation and for most of the time less hours, but not always.

I am fortunate enough no longer have to work at all, but if I choose to it would most certainly not round out to be 40 hours a week.

A 40 hour week job would seem part time to me and to most people I know. Either they need to clock more hours to provide for their families or their position is perceived to require much more time. Either way 40 hours a week is a great idea that really does not play well in one of the best economies in the world.

Unfortunately, human nature, most often, will never let us be satisfied with what 40 hours will produce even if we were allowed to control our individual work schedules.”

-Dan Torrey