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The realization of the 40-hour workweek that has become standard across many American industries was hard fought. It took deadly accidents, employees banding together and a White House willing to listen to make it happen.
“It’s not just one incident, but it was a culmination of many events and many struggles that allowed this to become law,” said Angelica Santomauro, executive director of the American Labor Museum in Haledon, New Jersey.
Eight-hour days became rallying cries in the latter half of the 19th century, as workers in the building trades and similar industries marched together for better conditions. The Ford Motor Company advanced the idea in 1914, when it scaled back from a 48-hour to a 40-hour workweek after founder Henry Ford believed that too many hours were bad for workers’ productivity.
The formation of unions helped to strengthen the idea of working five days a week as well. In 1937, auto plant workers staged a sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, to protest bleak conditions at General Motors that included no bathroom breaks, no benefits or sick pay and no safety standards.
The negotiations between GM and the United Auto Workers ultimately improved working conditions. The federal government would show its support when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, a key part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Many historians credit Roosevelt’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins, for championing the cause. Perkins was in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in 1911 on the day of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Almost 150 garment workers, mostly women and immigrants, were trapped and killed when the building caught fire. The exits had been blocked — a common practice at the time.
“She saw the young girls jumping out of the window,” Santomauro said. “This, I’m sure, opened her heart about the plight of the workers. That really stayed with her.”
Aside from the 40-hour workweek, the Fair Labor Standards Act also included several reforms in place that Americans can appreciate to this day — establishing a minimum wage, overtime pay and putting an end to “oppressive” forms of child labor.