By Tim Kitz
(This is a companion piece to our article “The Case for a Shorter Working Week.”)
Historically, the reduction of the workweek from six to five days can be credited to a combination of worker truancy, religious accommodation, productivity gains, labour mobilization, and government regulation.
In 19th century northern England, factory owners grew tired of workers taking “Saint Monday” off after carousing their way through Sunday. They struck a deal where workers could take half of Saturday off if they arrived ready to work on Monday, which soon led to the first use of the word ‘weekend.’
The first five-day week in North America was instituted in 1908 New England, so that Jewish cotton mill employees wouldn’t have to work on the Sabbath. Then the productivity gains created when Henry Ford perfected assembly line mass production allowed him to offer all his workers a two-day weekend in 1926.
Demands for a five-day week and eight hour days became a cornerstone of union agitation, with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America Union becoming the first to win their demand in 1929.
In 1940 the Fair Labour Standards Act instituted a five day weekend across the U.S., a standard that spread to Canada and many other countries. The Act was instituted mostly to maintain employment and stave off layouts — and in response to significant political pressure.
It was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, a sweeping set of social programs that responded to the Great Depression, mass unemployment and social unrest, and a powerful labour and socialist movement.
The New Deal has been seen as saving capitalism from revolution by creating the modern welfare state, reigning in the excesses of the robber baron industrialists, Wall Street investment gamblers, and speculative bankers – who had capsized the world economy in the first place.
Even incremental improvements for workers, then, comes at the cost of social struggle.