The 40-hour-plus workweek has been part of the US job system for so many years that many people think of it as a natural law. Historian Benjamin Hunnicutt has spent years researching one company – Kellogg’s – that broke that law by cutting work hours. He talked to hundreds of workers, many of whom recall the freedom and creativity unleashed by the extra time. Hunnicutt, who is the author of Work Without End, is in the process of writing his findings on Kellogg’s into a book, which will be published by Temple University Press.
On December 1, 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, W.K. Kellogg replaced the traditional three daily, eight-hour shifts in the Battle Creek, Michigan, cereal plant with four six-hour shifts. From now on, W.K. declared, his Cornflakes and Shredded Wheat would be produced by a company with a conscience, willing to do its share to fight the depression. By adding one entire shift, he reasoned, 30 percent more jobs would be added at the plant – jobs desperately needed by the unemployed in the city.
Kellogg’s six-hour day was an instant success, attracting national media coverage and the attention of Herbert Hoover’s administration. The initiative won strong support from prominent businessmen and labor leaders all over the country, and from community leaders and workers in Battle Creek. Observers throughout the world speculated that Kellogg’s experiment offered a practical way out of the depression, and in light of the fact that hours of labor had been steadily declining for over a century, was almost certainly a foretaste of things to come.
W.K. and his lieutenants believed that the six-hour day would revolutionize industry because the balance of the workers’ lives would shift from concerns about money and jobs to concerns about freedom. The true miracle of welfare capitalism would thereby be revealed: expanding leisure. Under the direction of enlightened industrialists such as W.K., the exchange of goods, services, and labor in the free market would not have to result in mindless consumerism or eternal exploitation of people and resources. Rather, workers would be liberated by increasingly higher wages and shorter hours for the final freedom promised by the Declaration of Independence – the Pursuit of Happiness.
Through the depression years, the six-hour day functioned as W.K. Kellogg and Lewis J. Brown, the company president, hoped. Jobs were created as the company payroll grew. Plant employees seemed delighted to have more time of their own, especially so since their weekly paychecks were only a little smaller. Workers were paid for seven hours during the first year of the six-hour day, but beginning in the second year, total wages were raised back to the nominal level of the eight-hour day.
Productivity was up, both because of the introduction of new technology and because of Kellogg’s innovative approach to hours and work incentives. In essence, the management of Kellogg’s was sharing the benefits of that increased productivity with the workers in the form of free time.
FAMILY AND COMMUNITY LIFE
We have excellent information about what workers said about shorter hours. In 1932, the Women’s Bureau of the US Department of Labor sent a research team to Battle Creek to interview Kellogg’s women workers. The team found nearly 85 percent preferred the six-hour shift, primarily because it provided "more time for family activities and home duties and leisure" and because it helped some of the unemployed find work.
The great majority of the Kellogg women used "freedom" or closely related words when the agents asked them to compare the eight-hour and six-hour shifts.
The second most commonly used pattern of words had to do with control and possession; the women spoke about "my work," "my own time," "time to myself," or "enables." Several women told the agents that the balance of their life seemed to be shifting from constraint/servitude toward freedom/control.
Interviews and surveys I conducted more recently confirm the findings of the Women’s Bureau study.
For Susan Smith*, [*These names are pseudonyms to protect the privacy of those interviewed.] one of the Kellogg employees I talked to, work was never the central part of life. The extra time she had as a result of the six-hour shift allowed her to get her housework out of the way and get on to what she saw as the real part of the day: reading, walking, writing. She was self-educated, and it was in the few hours between routine housework and the job that she could keep the life of her mind and spirit alive, and find time to be involved in her community.
Many of the women found routine, repetitive housework to be a burden, but they enjoyed canning, sewing, gardening, and other household activities that had a sense of 19th century craftsmanship to them.
Josephine Isley* spoke enthusiastically about canning at home during her early days at Kellogg’s, remembering it as a family project that "we all enjoyed." To her, canning wasn’t work in the same way that the job at Kellogg’s was work. Certainly canning required effort – great effort in some cases to get her sons involved. But it was a productive activity that provided a number of important non-financial benefits; the most important was that her family was together doing something worthwhile. After they were recruited, Isley recalled that her "sons opened up to talk freely" and that during such activities "we were the most together as a family." Because of such activities "we were better parents."
She contrasted such complex activities with the "silly" kinds of leisure pastimes (TV and video games) which, together with modern jobs, take all the time from family activities.
George Howard* wrote that "the six-hour shift let dad be with four boys at ages when that was important."
The shorter shift made a difference on the job as well. Roberta Babcock* wrote "I retired before they did away with the six-hour day … but from my observation in talking to friends who were still working, there was a vast difference in attitudes regarding their work. They more or less lost interest and didn’t look forward to going in to work like we all did on six hours. Then, there was a much more relaxed attitude, not the tension that exists on eight hours. They all liked the additional money but felt it wasn’t worth the constant hassle."
Like generations of workers before them in Europe and the United States, the Kellogg’s women also saw the shorter hours as a moral act, symbolizing their willingness to share their good fortune with others. They criticized those who didn’t support the six-hour policy as "money-hungry work hogs."
Although there is no comparable survey from the ’30s for the men, there is strong evidence that their general support was similar. In addition to plant-wide votes taken in the 1930s and ’40s in which men voted three to one for a six-hour shift, interviews with surviving male workers support this claim. To a man, workers who still remember the 1930s recall that there was nearly total support at the plant, and that the few who opposed shorter hours were branded as misfits and "work hogs."
Community life was strengthened and opened as well. Although there is no hard data on changes in the use of libraries and recreational facilities, interviews with some 500 residents of Battle Creek who lived during this period and a review of the 1932 women’s survey indicate that there was a strengthening of the traditional institutions that thrive when people have free time: amateur sports, bars, clubs, churches, community service.
The six-hour shift also represented a new opportunity to do things beyond the traditional. There was a sense of expectation and experimentation. One woman learned how to fly, for example. Schools were well-attended by adults interested in personal enrichment, the arts, or getting a better job. People would go to the city. There was a lot of discussion about this opportunity to create something new.
A POST-WAR SHIFT
After 1938, Kellogg management soured on the short shift, and the company began to withdraw support. This was in part because of union demands that all workers be put on the six-hour shift; departments that had needed extra scheduling flexibility had until then remained on an eight-hour shift.
Also, the fixed costs associated with each worker on the payroll had increased. Kellogg management had tried to prorate retirement pay, insurance benefits, and other benefits, but the union had pressed for increases.
Another factor was that Kellogg himself stepped down, turning over management of the plant to Watson Vanderploeg, a banker from Chicago who didn’t share Kellogg’s welfare capitalist philosophy.
Complying with Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order mandating a longer work week as a wartime measure, the Kellogg plant went to three eight-hour shifts in the early days of World War II. But prompted by the union, management reluctantly promised to return to the six-hour day as soon as the war ended.
After the war, management tried to convince workers to continue working eight hours. Despite generous money incentives and company pressure, workers voted three to one in 1945 and again in 1946 to return to the short shift.
Management insisted that "those who want it" be allowed to work longer hours. Workers were divided by this tactic. Senior men in skilled crafts were more interested in working longer for more money and less interested in sharing their work. This group formed a coalition with management and together they began to challenge the six-hour supporters. They did this largely by trying to persuade others in the plant to join them in voting for eight-hour days. They began to talk about "necessity" as an absolute and unchanging reality, the importance of "full-time work," and the unimportance of "leisure."
Embracing the new "Human Relations" techniques of business management, Kellogg’s management tried to convince employees that work was the center of life, important for its own sake. Echoing management’s rhetoric, senior male workers joined management in supporting work as an ideal, affirming work as life’s center and organizing principle. A few workers and union leaders even joined the more loquacious managers in romanticizing "The Job" and raising work to heroic and mythic proportions.
During the depression and the 1940s, Kellogg’s workers had spoken of necessity declining as wages increased, of the possibility of a person getting "enough" or "too much," and of being able to "share the work." They had also spoken of their "needs" in relation to non-monetary values, saying things such as, "I need the extra money, but I need the time at home more."
But after the 1950s, the majority of the eight-hour workers abandoned the language of freedom and control that both men and women had used for over 50 years, insisting that money was the only real job benefit. They insisted that they never had "enough" to work less than full-time. Shorter hours for less money was "stupid," "silly," "crazy," "wasted," etc. and only for the "weak girls," "lazy, sissy men," or "housewives" who really didn’t need to work or didn’t realize the seriousness of The Job.
This issue divided workers along gender and class lines. More and more, leisure was feminized. Those with power and status in the community stood to lose out if another part of life – leisure, community, family – made competitive claims to meaning and significance in the lives of the workers, along with claims on their time and allegiance.
If the most important part of people’s lives is outside the context of work, who is in control? Traditionally women have had more power in the home and in the community. So the battle over time became a power struggle between those who wanted work to continue in its central role and those who were claiming the importance of other parts of the culture. To a significant degree, this division came down between sexes and classes.
THE SIX-HOUR MAVERICKS
Through the late 1950s and 1960s, more of the six-hour departments voted to go to eight-hour shifts. But the workers in the remaining departments closed ranks, becoming a mutually supportive and combative group. After 1960, the majority of six-hour workers were women.
The six-hour mavericks believed they were fighting labor’s historic battle against unemployment. The local union had given up that effort on a local level in favor of supporting politicians who claimed they would conquer unemployment by creating more jobs at the national level. But the mavericks still spoke about unemployment as a local problem; the unemployed were laid-off friends, neighbors, and relatives.
The primary reason most of the mavericks gave for their being at work in the first place was necessity. Nonetheless, this group continued to insist that it was possible to make "enough" on the short shift to live reasonably. They also spoke of balancing the need for money and the need for free time by limiting their work hours.
This group also hoped that shorter hours would revitalize the home and community. If the family spent more time at home as the industrial work day diminished, more energy for home-making would be available, housework could be shared, and the positive parts of home-making accentuated. The home and neighborhood, rather than factories, shops, and stores, might then grow in importance.
By the late 1950s, the remaining six-hour mavericks were not only fighting a losing battle with Kellogg management and senior craftsmen, they were facing the intrusion of mass culture.
During the ’40s and ’50s, consumerism increased as a cultural force nationwide. Workers in Battle Creek offered more resistance than others, unwilling at first to give up their time for "living" to the lure of new things to buy.
But after the ’50s, mass amusements, radio, and TV began their domination of leisure time. Passive culture consumption began to replace the traditional active practice and creation of culture. Why go see the women play baseball when you can watch the Detroit Lions on TV? Why do your own canning when you can buy canned goods at the supermarket? Why do anything in leisure time when you can pay someone else to do it?
As leisure lost its cultural role, emptied of activity and community and family meaning, consumerism strengthened. After the the centrality of work was reaffirmed and abundant leisure branded as only for "silly girls," consumerism no longer had a rival in Battle Creek.
THE END OF THE SIX-HOUR SHIFT
In this environment, the remaining six-hour workers had little chance. Under siege through the ’60s and ’70s, the group nevertheless held their position until the issue came to a head in the summer of 1984. The company claimed that strong competitive pressure within the cereal industry was forcing it to make its work force more "efficient." Singling out the six-hour departments for cutbacks, Kellogg’s Board of Directors threatened to relocate most of the jobs at the plant to other cities unless all six-hour departments voted to go to an eight-hour shift immediately.
Pressured by the union and threatened by the company, a majority of the six-hour workers voted on December 11, 1984, to accept the longer hours .
A CULTURE OF WORK & CONSUMERISM
Most economists and historians assume that the reason working hours have not gotten shorter for 50 years and that we are now increasingly overworked is because we can’t afford to work less.
The Kellogg story demonstrates that the "necessity" to work full-time does not come from on high, but is the product of changes in community beliefs, values, and culture.
Consumerism was a strong competitor for the extra time. Moreover, as leisure became little more than TV, its attractiveness waned.
Class and gender interests, traditions, and allegiances also helped determine the course of events. It was no accident that women were the strongest and most persistent of the six-hour advocates, doggedly criticizing the work-centered life and promoting alternative social structures, activities, and values.
After World War II, for reasons of community status and power, Kellogg’s managers and senior male workers promoted work, trivialized leisure, and made shorter hours into an issue strongly associated with feminine values. Their position set them apart from six-hour women, who were looking outside the job to the family, school, and community for meaning and satisfaction, control, and status.
Over 50 years, the debate in Battle Creek evolved from strong support of "less work and more life" in 1930s and ’40s to a reaffirmation of work as the center of life and a rejection of increasing free time.
This cultural change, rather than economic necessity, is the fundamental reason why the six-hour day ended at Kellogg’s.
Where did our culture pick up the notion that there is no such thing as enough? That we have to work long hours our whole lives just to get by? That we have to have the latest gadget, clothes, cars, and so on?
Ben Hunnicutt, in his book, Work Without End, describes the way these notions were consciously promoted starting in the 1920s. Consumerism was the business world’s answer to "demand saturation." The idea that people would have enough, and therefore both buy less and work less, was not appealing to the business leaders of the day.
The following is excerpted with permission from Work Without End, published by Temple University Press.
In the 1920s, work was becoming critically scarce because, as so many observers agreed, human needs for work’s products were being satisfied. At the same time, traditional motives for working were diminishing due to the fact that basic needs were being met.
It’s "perfectly clear that the middle class American already buys more than he needs," but "unless we have a greater outlet for our goods . . . as manufacturing efficiency increases, there will be larger groups with too much leisure," observed business spokesperson Walter Henderson Grimes.
Since many Americans had achieved a standard of living above "need," economic growth seemed doomed.
By the mid-1920s, the fears of businessmen that people had too little work were gradually replaced by a new and vigorous optimism, which industrial relations counselor E.S. Cowdrick called the "new economic gospel of consumption."
The good news was that increased consumption could save economic growth and redeem work. If existing markets were being saturated, then the reasonable response would be to find new markets and increase consumption.
Growth in the "new era" of abundance, however, seemed to be complicated by the fact that workers did not desire new goods and services – automobiles, chemicals, appliances, and amusements – as spontaneously as they did the old ones – food, clothing, and shelter.
It would be the hard work of investors, marketing experts, advertisers, and business leaders, as well as the spending examples set by the rich, that would promote consumption.
With this, the business community broke its long concentration on production, introduced the age of mass consumption, founded a new view of progress in an abundant society, and gave life to the advertising industry.
– Benjamin Hunnicutt