One summer during the early 1970s, I was given a document distributed by a protest group which came from the Students for a Democratic Society or one of its radical affiliates. The item pretended to present a comprehensive platform for reshaping a “just” society.
One of its key economic positions was something which recently, thanks to the passage and clumsy implementation thus far of the statist “train wreck” known as ObamaCare, has become a very hot topic: the idea of a 30-hour work week.
The radicals wanted to make it the law of the land. Since I had recently worked 48-hour weeks at a minimum-wage summer job washing dishes, I found their proposal interesting but completely unappealing. Why, after considering overtime, would I have wanted to take a 42 percent pay cut? Their simplistic answer was to make the minimum wage about twice its then-current level of $1.60 per hour, and to force employers to pay the same amount of money for only 30 hours of work. Even as a teenager, I was smart enough to know that as the person most recently hired, I would have been the first person fired if they had gotten their way.
It turns out that the idea of a 30-hour work week in the U.S. is at least nearly a century old. Its lineage ultimately goes back to Karl Marx’s long-discredited idea of “surplus labor.”
In 1919, the 30-hour week was a central but ultimately abandoned demand in nationwide negotiations between unionized coal companies and their United Mine Workers members. A measure mandating it passed the U.S. Senate during the early months of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term in 1933, but somehow failed to get through the Democrat-dominated “rubber stamp” House. Though that’s much further than the idea should have advanced, modern leftists are probably dreaming when they assert that such legislation “almost” become law. Master politician FDR publicly supported it, but insisted on so many conditions before he would consider it acceptable that he effectively killed the measure without the messiness of a veto.
The 30-hour week, with hourly wages raised by one-third so that no worker’s pay would suffer, often accompanied by a requirement to pay double-time instead of time-and-a-half for additional hours, remained a favorite goal of Big Labor during much of the 1960s, championed at different times by railway workers, the United Auto Workers, and others. The UAW’s Walter Reuther supported the idea while claiming, as interpreted by the Associated Press, that:
… he sees no end in sight for organized Labor’s demands for more pay and improved working conditions so long as the American economy keeps expanding.
… He said unions will never let up so long as they feel their demands are “economically just and economically necessary” and while science and technology continue to create more abundance.
The 30-hour work week became doomed in the late-1960s and early 1970s, thanks to two recessions and firms in other countries becoming legitimate industrial competitors. But it wasn’t forgotten, and is still considered an important goal in many leftist quarters.
As to ObamaCare, the law dictates the following: “The term ‘full-time employee’ means, with respect to any month, an employee who is employed on average at least 30 hours of service per week.” It also “requires any business with 50 or more full-time employees to provide at least the minimum level of government-defined health coverage to those employees.”