The 40-hour workweek started with autoworkers—now they're trying to make 32 hours the new norm

United Auto Workers members on a picket line outside the Stellantis NV Toledo Assembly Complex in Toledo, Ohio, on Sept. 18, 2023.
Emily Elconin | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Thousands of United Auto Workers members are striking against three major Detroit automakers — Ford, GM and Stellantis — at plants across the U.S.

While the biggest issue on the table is pay (the union proposed 40% hourly pay increases over the next four years), another proposal is adopting an emerging buzzy benefit: The UAW is calling for the introduction of a four-day, 32-hour workweek, at the same rate of pay, and overtime pay for anything beyond that.

"Our members are working 60, 70, even 80 hours a week just to make ends meet," said UAW president Shawn Fain on a Facebook Live event last month. "That's not a living. That's barely surviving, and it needs to stop."

Calls for a 32-hour workweek may seem lofty, but autoworkers have a long history of driving change in the structure of the American workweek.

The auto industry's history of shortened workweeks

Labor unions have been trying to reduce the workday for more than 100 years, says Cathy Creighton, director of Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab and a former field attorney for the National Labor Relations Board.

Autoworkers at Ford Motor Company were among the first to adopt a five-day, 40-hour workweek in 1926 at a time when people regularly topped 100 hours per week. By 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act cut the workweek to 44 hours, then down to 40 hours two years later.

Meanwhile, the UAW gained foothold throughout the 1930s, including a historic "sit-down" strike that ended after 44 days in 1937 when GM agreed to recognize the union as the bargaining agent for workers. The victory prompted a surge in UAW membership and organizing efforts in other sectors.

By 1940, union groups thought they'd continue to work toward a targeted 30-hour week, Jonathan Cutler, a sociologist at Wesleyan University, told NPR. While autoworkers generally supported the idea, UAW leadership ultimately stepped away from it in future negotiations.

To put your work life on the line for a strike is a big deal.
Cathy Creighton
Cornell University ILR director

The shortened workweek has gotten attention in recent years as foreign governments, corporate offices and even U.S. lawmakers see it as a solution to reduce burnout and improve productivity. Recent global experiments yielded positive results for workers and businesses alike.

The sheer momentum of today's UAW strikes, which represents about 146,000 workers, could have a big impact on other sectors of the workforce.

"I think it will move the public toward thinking the four-day workweek is the appropriate workweek," Creighton says. "They have a large platform to let the public know this is something their members are willing to strike over. To put your work life on the line for a strike is a big deal."

Negotiating for a 32-hour week is 'not just symbolic'

Many labor experts say it's not likely the UAW's 32-hour proposal will get much farther in the strike. "If wages are resolved, this will not be a primary issue" and could come off the table, Creighton says.

Even so, "it's not just symbolic," she adds. "Sometimes you leverage certain items to get others. I'm assuming if wages get to numbers that workers would accept, this would come off the table. But we'll see."

Since the strikes began Friday, Ford has offered a 20% pay increase over the four years of the deal, GM raised its offer to 20% Friday, and Stellantis upped their offer to 21% Saturday. Even so, UAW president Fain said Monday the union and automakers remain "far apart" on key issues and announced additional strikes if the sides don't make "serious progress" in negotiations by Friday.

The UAW also proposed the elimination of compensation tiers and a restoration of cost-of-living adjustments, as well as other workplace protections a shift back to traditional pensions, improved retiree and parental leave benefits, and more.

It's a good time for labor organizers generally, Creighton says. Strike activity is on the rise, public support for unions reached a historic high, and new leadership is generating buzz, she adds: UAW's leadership is "more populist and willing to take risks and say, 'We're not afraid.'"

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