The Laborious History of the 40 Hour Work Week

40 hour work week

Did you know that in 1890, it wasn’t uncommon for full-time manufacturing employees to log in a backbreaking 100 hours each week?

There wasn’t much time for anything but work with that schedule.

Today, there are still quite a few people who work a 60-80 hour work week, in spite of how much healthier it is to work a 40 hour work week.

The fight for the 40 hour work week was hard won. It wasn’t one event that brought it into being.

It took the actions, efforts and even deaths of many people to make it a reality.

The 40 Hour Work Week Was a Culmination of Many Events

It’s a system that has worked well. Companies can operate within a specific parameter of time while managing the time of their employees with software like Timeclock Hub. All of this leads to better tracking of their bottom line.

The 40 hour work week is one we take for granted. But in the United States, it took over a century to finally get it into legislation.

Many credit the Ford Motor Company for instituting this policy, but that’s not entirely accurate.

Through the latter half of the 19th century, there’d already been a push from workers demanding a shorter work week. In 1914, Ford advanced the idea when it scaled back from a 48-work week to a 40-hour work week.

There was also pressure from labor organizers. The formation of unions further strengthened the idea of working five days per week.

Another key player was Frances Perkins, labor secretary under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1911, she’d seen the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and saw young women jumping to their deaths to escape the fire.

In the end, 150 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, died. This image stuck with her and impassioned her to help change the laws.

So when did it all begin and how did it play out?

The History of the 40 Hour Work Week

The long history actually began in Wales.


Welsh manufacturer and labor rights activist Robert Owen saw the logic in dividing the day into three equal eight-hour parts. One part work, one part recreation and one part rest.

Europeans didn’t embrace the idea, but over the next few decades, it gained popularity in the United States. Similar slogans around this three-part division rose up shortly after the Civil War.


Inspired by Owen’s slogan, the National Labor Union asked Congress to pass a law mandating an eight-hour workday. The effort failed but began to bring awareness to labor reform.


Exhausted by working 12-14 hours six days per week, workers called for the Illinois Legislature to limit workdays to eight hours. The law passed but contained a loophole that allowed employers to contract with their employees for longer hours.

Unhappy with this loophole, workers went on a huge strike in Chicago on May 1st. The strike spread to other cities in the U.S. and Europe as well – and the day became known as May Day.


President Ulysses S. Grant issued a proclamation that guaranteed a stable wage and an eight-hour workday. This only applied to government workers, however.

Even so, the change encouraged private sectors to push for the same rights.

The 1870s and 1880s

Although the National Labor Union was now defunct, other organizations such as the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions and Knights of Labor continued their efforts to establish an eight-hour workday.

Strikes and demonstrations happened each year on May 1st to raise awareness.


Labor organizations turned up the heat by staging a national strike in support of the 40 hour work week. In response, more than 300,000 workers turned out across the country.

The strike got heated in Chicago though, where demonstrators fought with police and many – on both sides – were wounded or killed. This event was later named the “Haymarket Affair.”


In tandem with the government workers, two major firms in the printing industry instituted the eight-hour workday.


The Ford Motor Company attracted notice for instituting eight-hour shifts and raising wages. Many still worked a six-day work week, though.

These changes weren’t automatic. Workers’ homes had to go under an inspection first to see if they were worthy. Even if they did qualify, there was no guarantee the benefits would last.

If the cost to implement these changes ever exceeded profits, Ford could pull them. This would later be an issue when the Great Depression hit.


As the push for the 8-hour workday began to pick up more steam, Congress passed the Adamson Act to grant this to interstate railroad workers. Three years later, the Supreme Court constitutionalized the act.


As more and more industries and companies began to implement the 40 hour work week, tensions heightened. Refusing to work long hours any longer, 4 million American workers – a whopping 20% of the workforce – went on strike.


Ford Motor Companies finally adopted a five-day, 40-hour workweek – although still with some stipulations and the ability to alter benefits.


Unlike the Ford Motor Company, General Motors in Flint, Michigan, failed in every way to show they appreciated their employees. Working conditions were bleak and included no bathroom breaks, no benefits or sick pay and no safety standards.

As a result, eight years into the Great Depression, workers finally went on strike. Although negotiations between GM and the workers didn’t result in an 8-hour work day, it did help to reduce their hours.


At long last, all workers saw limits on their working hours when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The limit was set at 44 hours per week or 8.8 hours per day. Saturday working hours were still common.


On June 26th, 123 years after Owen conjured the idea of the 8-hour workday, Congress amended the FLSA to further limit the workweek to 40 hours. The law went into effect on October 24th.

Be Grateful for Those 40 Hours!

It’s clear that the 40 hour work week has been beneficial to businesses and their employees alike.

Now that you know the whole history of it, maybe you’re curious about how to get the best out of your own workplace or employees. Be sure to check out our business blog for great tips and advice on all things business!

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