A brief history of the 8-hour workday, which changed how Americans work

History of the 40-hour workweek
History of the 40-hour workweek

The eight-hour workday, or the 40-hour workweek, didn't become the modern labor standard by accident.

Back when the government first tracked workers' hours in 1890, full-time manufacturing employees worked a backbreaking 100 hours each week. Years of pressure from laborer organizers, along with changes from companies like Ford Motor, reformed working conditions in the U.S. and protected workers from schedules that endangered their health and safety.

Recent data indicates that the typical American worker is no longer adhering to an eight-hour workday. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 44 hours per week, or 8.8 hours per day. A 2014 national Gallup poll put the average number at 47 hours per week, or 9.4 hours per day, with many saying they work 50 hours per week.

In demanding, competitive industries like tech and finance, professionals work in excess of 60 hours a week as a rule, and are available constantly by smartphone. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek story highlighted American factories where employees work upwards of 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week.

In a time when Americans are working more than ever before and taking less time off, it's helpful to see how the U.S. arrived at its "standard" workday.

A group of factory workers pictured circa 1890.
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Early 1800s: "For nearly 200 years workers, organized or not, sought to limit the workday," says Nelson Lichtenstein, history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

"In the 19th century, even enslaved persons 'negotiated' with masters for time off," he adds.

1817: Welsh manufacturer and labor rights activist Robert Owen coins the phrase "Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest," dividing the day into three equal eight-hour parts.

The idea did not take hold in Europe, but it made its way to the U.S. over the next few decades. According to Lichtenstein, American workers adopted a similar slogan in the years following the Civil War.

1866: The now-defunct National Labor Union asks Congress to pass a law mandating the eight-hour workday. Their efforts ultimately fails, but helps put labor reform on the political map.

It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either lost time or a class privilege.
Henry Ford
founder, Ford Motor

1867: Workers who were "exhausted by 12 to 14 hours a day of work, six days a week," call for the Illinois Legislature to limit workdays to eight hours, according to the Chicago Historical Society.

The legislature passes the law, but it contains a loophole that allows "employers to contract with their employees for longer hours," the historical society writes. In response, on May 1, a large strike erupts in Chicago which spreads to other cities across the U.S. and Europe. That day became known as May Day.

1869: President Ulysses S. Grant issues a proclamation that guarantees an eight-hour workday without a decrease in pay. But it only applies to government workers.

Portrait of group of workers in a cotton mill in Indianapolis, Indiana circa 1908.
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

1880s to early 1900s: The movement to reduce a worker's standard hours continues to grow. In 1898 the United Mine Workers win an eight-hour day. By 1905, the eight-hour workday was common practice in the printing industry.

1926: Ford Motor issues a five-day, 40-hour workweek for its workers in a newsworthy move by founder and business titan Henry Ford.

In a statement, Ford writes, "It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either lost time or a class privilege."

1937: Auto workers from General Motors strike at a plant in Flint, Michigan, protesting working conditions. Negotiations between GM and the workers ultimately help reduce worker hours.

Workers operating sewing machines circa 1935.
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

1938: Political pressure continues to mount. On June 25, Congress passes the Fair Labor Standards Act, which limits the workweek to 44 hours, or 8.8 hours per day.

1940: On June 26, Congress amends the Fair Labor Standards Act, further limiting the workweek to 40 hours. A few months later, on October 24, the law goes into effect.

Today's labor market is far more complicated. The rise in contract workers, such as Uber drivers, or those who work temporary positions for companies means that many U.S. workers are not protected by these laws.

"Contract workers work 100 hours per week with no overtime," Lichtenstein says. "Today, the eight-hour day is falling apart from both ends."

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