When the U.S. Considered a 30-Hour Work Week
As Franklin D. Roosevelt's first month in office drew to a close, and the banks reopened after a successful shutdown, the president turned his attention to his next major challenge: mass unemployment.
Roosevelt proposed direct state grants for relief-work programs, public works to create jobs, and a civilian conservation corps to be used for forestry, prevention of soil erosion, flood control and other projects.
More esoteric and controversial plans soon emerged, as the Great Depression led to widening political divisions over how to help the unemployed.
The need for jobs was clearly urgent. Pennsylvania’s Employment Commission, analyzing more than 30,000 interviews with the unemployed, found that the "average jobless worker is 36 years old, married, white, native born, physically fit, and with a good previous record at his calling," the New York Times reported. Almost three-quarters "qualified for skilled ratings in their specialties."
Employers had not disproportionately fired elderly workers, nor were the unemployed chiefly unskilled laborers and shiftless "bums," as was rumored. Rather, most were "first-class" workers in their prime who had been unwillingly idled, many for years.
This presented a significant conundrum for policymakers. Democratic Senator Hugo Black of Alabama proposed a federally mandated 30-hour work week. Critics responded that, because a full week's work was about 42 hours, wage packets would shrink by a third.
Black argued that "there would be little incentive for proportionate wage cuts if all manufacturers were put on the same work hour basis," the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
Perhaps, but surely this would create a nationwide law-enforcement challenge comparable to Prohibition.
Republican Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania claimed shorter hours yielding the same weekly pay would increase the labor cost of goods by a third, increasing prices. Given Depression-induced deflation, other senators said they hoped it would.
The Senate approved Black’s 30-hour bill, a temporary two-year measure, on April 6 by a 53-30 vote. The House promised early hearings, even as resistance to the measure mounted. Critics asserted that a constitutional test was certain as the proposed law would "end all freedom of commerce" and eliminate "the power of the States over local matters."
Industrial leaders were split. Packard Motor Co. President Alvan Macauley viewed it as "gravely dangerous at this time, and that it might result in a great increase in the production costs and in the prices of manufactured articles." For Frederick Rentschler, head of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Co., Black’s proposal was "the most constructive plan yet advanced; although it may cause some hardships and inefficiency, it undoubtedly will be a great aid to relieving unemployment."
In a rare moment of agreement, both the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Federation of Labor opposed the bill on the grounds that it would significantly increase federal power.
Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to a U.S. president's Cabinet, led the House Labor Committee hearings. The six-hour day, she affirmed, accompanied by industry- and region-specific minimum-wage rates, would create a means to share America’s work and "put a bottom to the fall of wages."
Gerard Swope, president of General Electric Co., and AFL President William Green testified in favor, but they objected to the minimum-wage provision.
Before April's end, divisions and controversies scuttled the bill's chances. Its passage was "no longer in the picture," Senate Majority Leader Joseph Robinson, an Arkansas Democrat, concluded. Congress would have to devise other means to reduce unemployment.
(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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