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The Rise And Fall Of The 40-Hour Workweek

Posted at 5:26 PM, Sep 01, 2014

"Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will."

During the Industrial Revolution, that was one slogan of workers who rallied for the eight-hour workday — the 40-hour, five-day week that's become the standard for Americans.

On Sept. 5, 1882, the first Labor Day march took place in New York City, and one of the key concerns of workers was cutting down hours. Side note — Labor Day celebrations were moved to Sept. 1 two years later. 

​​Henry Ford was the first to implement the change in all his Ford factories — moving away from 48-hour, six-day workweeks without changing wages. In 1926, Ford spoke with World's Work magazine, explaining why he made the change. Interestingly, more rest for workers wasn't exactly his reasoning. 

​He's quoted as saying: "A workman would have little use for an automobile if he had to be in the shop from dawn until dusk. ... The automobile, by enabling people to get about quickly and easily, gives them a chance to find out what is going on in the world-which leads them to a larger life that requires more food, more and better goods, more books, more music -- more of everything."

In 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law — providing for the 40-hour workweek across the U.S. The formation of labor unions played a large hand in getting the act passed.

Unions helped prompt the Great Sit-Down of 1937, protesting the working conditions at General Motors. Eventually GM and the United Auto Workers made a deal that improved conditions. (Video via BBC)

But most of all, as NBC points out, Roosevelt's decision to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act is largely credited to his Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.

She witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed almost 150 garment workers who were locked inside. "She saw the young girls jumping out of the window. This, I'm sure, opened her heart about the plight of the workers. That really stayed with her," the executive director of the American Labor Museum told the outlet.

So that's how the 40-hour workweek came to be. But now a question: How many hours a week would you say you work?

It's probably more than 40 — that's according to a recent Gallup poll that shows the average workweek is actually closer to 47 hours with 50 percent of respondents reporting between 41 and 60-plus hours of work per week.

As a writer for Forbes notes, there are a number of reasons for the longer hours. One of them is pay structure. "While hourly workers can face limits by employers trying to cut costs, those on a salary often work up to five hours a week more. Some people have also taken on a second job, contributing to time spent in the office."

NBC points to technology as another reason, as it enables us to work from anywhere.

Regardless of the factors, the Gallup results have shown the same average of 47 hours pretty steadily over the past 10 years. So maybe for this Labor Day you should stay away from emails and phones calls — you'll probably still get those 40 hours in even with a four-day week.

This video includes images from Getty Images and Wikimedia Commons.