Good Question: How Did We Get The 8-Hour Work Day?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — As Labor Day winds down, many people are getting ready to return to an eight-hour work day Tuesday.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average American works about 8.8 hours every day. That got us wondering — how did eight hours become the magic number? Good Question.

Throughout the history of industry, the eight-hour work day has become such a norm that Dolly Parton even wrote a song about it.

Mick Sheppeck — an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas who specializes in human resources — says he works 10 to 12 hour days, usually.

“The majority of people are bugging out at the eight hour limit,” Sheppeck said.

But it wasn’t always that way. During the Industrial Revolution, companies were maximizing their factories. Around-the-clock business meant long hours for workers. It wasn’t uncommon to work up to 16 hours a day.

Sheppeck said companies could take advantage of immigrants who simply wanted a job and were willing to work all day or all night, and then child labor laws became an issue.

“‘Let’s not have these little kids working 14 hours a day.’ That sort of thing,” Sheppeck said.

Later, unions came into the picture.

“Mid-’30s, unions become available. In the very early ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, unions focused on working conditions,” Sheppeck said.

Ford Motor Company was actually one of the first companies to cut the standard work day down to eight hours. They did it in 1914, and their productivity went way up. After that, more and more companies followed suit — paving the way for an eight-hour work day.

Sheppeck said eight-hour work days vary between companies, but the standard magic number at the end of the week is usually 40 hours. After the recession, many companies turned to four-day work weeks with employees working 10 hours a day.

More from John Lauritsen

One Comment

  1. dan w says:

    Treating employees better, results in more productivity, imagine that… Now we could try paying them better too.

  2. Tony Clifton says:

    “Things like that?”. The battle for the American worker, was done for the American citizen, PERIOD. As usual this site and the daft person they quote, twist it into an immigration issue. The broken record of today. The American worker of today, that takes their work week, vacation and sick time for granted, need to know it was fought for. We need to start teaching in school from day one, the history of our Country, starting from its first settlers.

    1. dan w says:

      Many, many of those early union members were immigrants, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say…

      1. Tony Clifton says:

        My reply below meant discussing as this pathetic new page crashed 14 times when i was trying to reply to your question. I tried my best

  3. Tony Clifton says:

    I wrote that the fight for the American worker was for better treatment, and a decent life. Children were freed from being shackled labor with their parents. It was much more than some lame statement put in the article. The women that died on the job in horrible working conditions for the garment industry were real. People didn’t sit around disgussing they were immigrants, because they came to make a life, unlike those that move here today to change our country to what they left.

    1. dan w says:

      I’ve been around for a long time and I get to work with very diverse groups of people, I have to say that I’ve never met any of the immigrants you mention. Nobody I’ve met came here expecting to change the U.S., they do want to be treated with respect while they learn how to fit in, but they also want to keep much of the culture that is important to them.

      These are not the European immigrants of the early union days so our differences will be bigger, but even my ancestors, Irish and Italians, had a very hard time being accepted when they first came here. We’ll get through this if we avoid hating everyone that’s different, they’ll get through this if we let them…

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