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Labor Historian Clete Daniel Tells Us Why We’re Still Wage Slaves

Interview with American labor historian Clete Daniel, on the faculty at Cornell University.

Q: When did the eight-hour day become U.S. law?

During President Franklin Roosevelt's Administration, the government enacted a whole package of fair labor standards covering maximum hours, mandatory overtime and child labor law. The forty-hour workweek was finally enacted as federal law in 1938.

Q: Were there segments of the workforce already enjoying a forty-hour workweek before this federal legislation?

Yes, through collective bargaining agreements, a small percentage of organized workers had forty-hour workweeks.

Q: Did the government attempt to regulate work limits before 1938?

There were earlier attempts during the so-called Progressive Age of 1900 to 1917, but by states, not the federal government. Some states were innovating maximum hour laws for women as they entered the workforce.

Q: Were there corporate leaders of the early twentieth century that instituted shorter working hours?

There were some companies particularly in the 1920s that decided long hours would undermine their work forces through the long-term effects of long hours. Companies like General Electric and U.S. Rubber. Employers decided the way to maximize their labor pools was not by long hours, but by winning them over. In this era, employers stressed it was in employees' best interest to be as productive as possible. Through this concept of welfare capitalism, companies became benefactors; and employees gained shorter work hours, but also sick benefits and health insurance.

Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company espoused the idea that if you made these concessions, you could actually put greater demands on employees. When Ford created the five-day workweek (instead of six) people thought he was a radical, but he proved that he could achieve as much in production in five days as six.

But when the Great Depression hit, unemployment rose and workforce contentment became less of a concern, less of a need for companies.

Q: As a historian, how do you view the plus forty-hour work that many people in this new economy are working?

The same time and productivity pressures that were around during the old economy, when steelworkers were working twelve-hour days, seven days a week, exist today in the new economy. Then, they lacked the ability to resist those pressures and in many ways, I think that employees are as powerless today as they were then. The wages may be better, but the power of the boss to dictate is the same of both eras.

Time is the most precious thing people have to sell and if they lose control over their time, they lose their freedom, and, as eight-hour day agitators from a century ago said, they become wage slaves.

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