Today being Labor Day, we are supposed to appreciate the contributions of the workers' rights movements of the early twentieth century. The best one-liner I have heard from union proponents goes along the lines of "you should thank unions because without the unions, we wouldn't have the 40-hour work week." Should we be groveling at the feet of the AFL-CIO and thank our lucky stars that unions brought the American people such a wonderful gift?
A bit of history on the matter: Yes, it is true that unions had been clamoring for a forty-hour work week. In 1912, the Federal Public Works Act mandated a forty-hour work week, but that was only for federal government workers. It was not until June 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was enacted. The FLSA states that a) those covered under the FLSA have a maximum workweek of 40 hours, and b) in the event that they work over 40 hours, they must be paid overtime. The most objective way to determine the union's role in this matter is to take a look at the data on the amount of hours workers work within a given time period to determine if the unions were the cause of more optimal work-hours or if something else was the cause. The St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank has average weekly work hours data from 1939 to present, which doesn't exactly help us with determining the trend prior to the FLSA. To know what effect the FLSA may or may not have had on the average work week, we need to be able to look further back than 1939.
With available datasets, what's the verdict? The Economic Historical Association shows that weekly work hours were 58.5 per week in 1900, and had decreased to 40.6 hours by 1934, which is four years before the FLSA's enactment. The decrease in work hours from 1900 to 1940 was 35 percent. Here is another year-by-year breakdown from 1900 to 1975 that shows that downward trend. A study from the London School of Economics (Huberman and Minns, 2007, p. 542) also shows that this general downward trend was occurring in multiple countries since 1870. The work week decreased from 63 to 49 weekly hours between 1870 and 1913 (Huberman, 2002, p. 19). Section D of the Historical Census Data also confirms this downward trend.
Most economists and historians actually reject that labor unions played a primary role in reducing the number of hours worked in a given week. Neither unionization nor work-hours legislation account for this decline (Costa, 1998, p. 14-15). If this trend was in existence well before the passage of the FLSA, what could possibly be attributing to this decline if not unions?
Much like I argued when discussing sweatshops, the economy was predominantly agricultural in the nineteenth century. The productivity of labor so low that a) people had to work 70 to 80 hours a week, and b) in many instances, child labor was necessary to keep food on the table. It was not through some piece of legislation, but through technological development (e.g., steam power in the nineteenth century) and factor productivity growth that people were able to work less hours. By the time the FLSA was passed such legislation was unnecessary because the average work hours during the late 1930s and early 1940s was hovering around the desirable length of the work week.
We didn't need a mandate to provide us with a 40-hour work week. Market forces were already doing that for us, and they should continue doing so. Employers should be able to experiment with various work-hour structures to see if it improves production factors and marginal utility of employees, and instead of being impeded by maximum work week laws, employees should have the freedom to work more than forty hours to increase their income if they so desire. The first Monday of every September should not be a celebration of what unions factually did not do. It should be a celebration of how capitalism has been the single greatest modus operandi to bring us wealth and prosperity. Happy Labor Day!