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Labor’s Time: Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism

Author(s):Cutler, Jonathan
Reviewer(s):Boyd, Lawrence W.

Published by EH.NET (April 2005)

Jonathan Cutler, Labor’s Time: Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. xi + 236 pp. $20.95 (paperback), ISBN: 1-59213-247-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lawrence W. Boyd, Center for Labor Education and Research, University of Hawaii.

This is a book about the politics and debate surrounding a shorter workweek within the United Auto Workers (UAW). In a sense it is something of a micro work in that it reduces a series of union demands and bargaining positions to one demand (30 hours work for 40 hours pay), then further reduces it to the relationship between a dissident union and the leader of the UAW (Walter Reuther), then reduces it again to the role the demand played in the evolution of that local union. Nonetheless such an approach actually brings a welcome focus to a very interesting issue in economic history — namely the decline of the workweek from the sixty to eighty hours prevalent in the nineteenth century to forty hours in the first half of the twentieth century where it has remained ever since. In a sense this book allows us to listen in on a conversation between significant actors about whether future productivity gains were to go to wages or to leisure. That the result went one way, and possibly determined the current landscape of the labor market, is what makes this book interesting.

Briefly this is a discussion one would have liked to listen in on if one is at all interested in the development of twentieth-century labor markets. During this time, within the United States, the attempt to advance a national health care plan was abandoned, at least in part because unions’ agreements led to mass coverage. Unions created a mass market necessary for privately provided health care insurance to thrive. They further advanced broad private pension coverage that also covered a substantial portion of the work force. As was the case with the United Mine Workers, this was at times expressly tied to productivity gains. Later in the 1960’s the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) would trade jobs for large-scale wages and benefit gains. This was a period when a European-style Social Democratic legislative agenda was “privatized” in the United States, thereby establishing a type of institutional structure somewhat unique to the United States.

Between 1947 and the early sixties dissidents within the UAW centered around Ford’s River Rouge plant would call for the UAW to advance the demand for a thirty hour work week at forty hours’ pay. In 1947 when the UAW as a whole, along with much of the rest of the country, expected the country to lapse back into depression the demand was seen as a work-sharing measure. But in addition the author, probably correctly, describes it as a “syndicalist” demand, namely more pay for less work. He opposes this (probably inaccurately) to the “corporatist” outlook of the UAW that saw the union as a vehicle for “industrial democracy” that saw its role as developing co-management within the industry between management and labor. The Reuther leadership of the UAW would oppose this demand saying it was the equivalent to demanding “an immediate 50 percent wage increase.” In addition during the fifties, Reuther claimed that it was unnecessary as a work-sharing measure because of low unemployment and that it was untenable as a bargaining issue because of its costs. Instead Reuther advanced proposals for a guaranteed annual wage and (the author fails to mention) health and pension coverage.

The author is quite good at establishing the political climate within the union and Local 600 where much of the story takes place. Local 600 was the union at Ford’s River Rouge factory, which in turn employed eighty-five thousand workers at its peak. In other words it was as large as many “international” unions of the time. It was large enough that it could affect the politics and decision-making process within the UAW. The political life in this local was dominated by various factions that contended for control of the local through direct elections. The major factions were the Communist Party (CP) and the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU). There were also smaller factions centered on the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and its offshoots like the Workers’ Party. These factions had wider agendas than shop floor issues that predetermined their internal positions. For example, during World War II the CP faction lost out to the ACTU faction because it championed speed up and piece rates in order to win the war and defend the Soviet Union. Thus the various factions at Local 600, and to a certain extent the UAW leadership under Walter Reuther, focused on the broader issues of the period. They only intermittently took up militant shop floor demands, like the thirty-hour week, in order to gain advantage among a membership who wanted this demand to be realized. They could do this because, also intermittently, broader considerations like communism versus anti-communism prevented one or another faction from advancing this demand.

The author overlooks something within this story. No faction consistently advanced the thirty-for-forty demand. Leading advocates at times dropped it as they moved up, others picked it up and dropped it as political exigencies demanded. Thus even in the political hothouse that the author describes it was not something that was taken up and advanced in a coherent way. It would be interesting to find out why. One gets the impression, as I’ve summarized above, that the debate never went far beyond affordability. This could be because the sources do not really accurately summarize the discussion. Cutler relies principally on factional documents such as radical newspapers, like The Daily Worker and The Militant, and leaflets, along with convention transcripts. One could say after reading this book that in the United States people chose to maximize their social welfare function through privatized welfare systems, rather than the public welfare systems of Europe. Further, the alternative, a “radical syndicalist” agenda centered on a shorter workweek, was at most half-heartedly advanced. As a result we have the institutional relationships that prevail today.

Lawrence W. Boyd is a member of the faculty at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu’s Center for Labor Education and Research. He is currently doing research on the long-run time series properties of wages and prices within the United States from 1820 to the present.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII