Hours of Labor

An address delivered at the first Annual meeting of the Civic Federation of New England, January, 11, 1906.

Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen:—

Whether in a particular business at a particular time the hours of labor should be materially shortened presents usually a grave question. Such a change, owing to competition, direct or indirect, may seriously threaten the prosperity or even the life of the business; or the demand for the reduction of hours may be coupled with other terms or conditions clearly inadmissible. In such cases strenuous resistance becomes the duty of the employer. But, however commendable the resistance of the employer to a reduction of hours may be in a particular case, we should all recognize that a short working day is in general essential to the attainment of American economic, social and political ideals, and our efforts should be directed to that end.

Mr. Gompers quoted some time ago the saying of Heine that "Bread is Freedom." The ancient Greeks, recognizing that "Man can not live by bread alone," declared that "Leisure is Freedom." Undoubtedly "A full dinner pail" is a great achievement as compared with an empty one, but no people ever did or ever can attain a worthy civilization by the satisfaction merely of material needs, however high these needs are raised. The American standard of living demands not only a high minimum wage, but a high minimum of leisure, because we must meet also needs other than material ones.

The welfare of our country demands that leisure be provided for. This is not a plea for indolence. Leisure does not imply idleness. The provision for leisure does not contemplate working less hard. It means ability to work not less, but more—ability to work at something besides bread-winning—ability to work harder while working at bread-winning, and ability to work more years at bread winning. We need leisure, among other reasons, because with us every man is of the ruling class. Our education and condition of life must be such as become a ruler. Our great beneficent experiment in democracy will fail unless the people, our rulers, are developed in character and intelligence.

Now consider what, particularly in our large cities, the chance for such development is for men and women who are required regularly to work ten or even nine hours a day. A nine-hour work-day means, including the noon hour, ten hours at the factory or workshop. That means in Boston for most of those who live in the suburbs eleven or twelve hours devoted to the workshop and getting to and from it. When you add the time necessarily spent at breakfast and supper, dressing and undressing, house work, shopping and sleep, you find that at least twenty-one of the twenty-four hours are devoted to subsistence and a small fraction of the day is left for living, even if after the long work day one is in a condition mentally and physically to really live.

To attain proper development of character, mind and body, a short working day is essential, and the eight-hour day is in most occupations and for most people not too short. For the exceptional occupation and for the exceptional man in any occupation, no general rule is required; and right thinking on this subject cannot be aided by reference to such exceptional instances. Most professions, many positions in business, and some in trades fall within the class of excepted occupations. Good work in such occupations almost necessarily brings with it joy, because it implies development of faculties and, ordinarily, pecuniary advancement. In every occupation there are such possibilities for the exceptional man. But in most industrial occupations—in the unskilled trades and in many so-called skilled trades—the limits of development and of financial success for any individual are soon reached, and consequently there is little joy in such work except as compared with the hours of idleness, or such satisfaction as comes to the needy in securing the means of subsistence.

And what is necessary to living as distinguished from subsisting?

In the first place, bodily health is necessary; that is, not merely freedom from illness, but continued physical ability to work hard. For those engaged in the more favored occupations, like the professions, and the higher positions in business and some trades, such health, including the postponement of old age, has been measurably attained by better conditions of living, and notably by outdoor recreation. What has been found necessary for continued health and working capacity for those engaged in these favored occupations we should seek to make attainable for all our citizens. The burden and waste to the community and to the individual, and the suffering attendant upon sickness and premature superannuation, may be and should be lessened by a shortening of the hours of labor so as to permit of proper out-door recreation.

In the second place, mental development is necessary. Massachusetts, recognizing the education of her citizens to be an essential condition of a free and prosperous people, has made compulsory the schooling of her children to the age of fourteen, has prohibited their working in manufacturing or mercantile establishments under the age of fourteen, and has withheld the right to vote from illiterate adults as inexorably as from idiots. But the intellectual development of citizens may not be allowed to end at fourteen. With most people whose minds have really developed, the age of fourteen is rather the beginning than the end of the educational period. The educational standard required of a democracy is obviously high. The citizen should be able to comprehend among other things the many great and difficult problems of industry, commerce and finance, which with us necessarily become political questions. He must learn about men as well as things.

In this way only can the Commonwealth be saved from the pitfalls of financial schemers on the one hand or of ambitious demagogues on the other.  But for the attainment of such an education, such mental development, it is essential that the education shall be continuous throughout life; and an essential condition of such continuous education is free time, that is, leisure and leisure does not imply merely a time for rest, but free time when body and mind are sufficiently fresh to permit of mental effort. There is full justification for the common practice in trades of charging at the rate of fifty per cent additional for work in excess of the regular hours. Indeed, I doubt whether that rate of pay is not often grossly inadequate to compensate for what it takes out of the employee. An extra hour of labor may render useless those other hours which might have been devoted to development, or to the performance of other duties, or to pleasure. The excess load is wasteful with man as well as with horses or vehicles or machinery. Whether the needed education of the citizens is to be given in classes or from the political platform, in the discussion of the lodges or in the trades unions, or is to be gained from the reading of papers, periodicals, or books, freshness of mind is imperative; and to the preservation of freshness of mind a short work day is for most people essential.

Bodily and mental health and development will furthermore tend to promote innocent, rational pleasures and, in general, better habits of living. Such conditions will tend to lessen the great curse of drink, and with it some of the greatest burdens of the individual and of society.

It is, of course, no answer to the plea for a shorter work day to say that the leisure resulting from shorter hours may not be profitably employed. The art of using leisure time, like any other, must be learned; but it is certain that the proper use of leisure, as of liberty, can never be attained except by those who have the opportunity of leisure or of liberty.

Nor is it an answer to the plea for a shorter work day to say that most workingmen secure a certain amount of free time through the irregularity of their work. Such free time is literally time lost. Such irregular excessive free time presents an even greater evil than that of excessive work.

Although the reduction of the hours of labor is clearly desirable, it may, as already stated, be impossible, on account of competition or other cause, to grant the reduction at a particular time in a particular business. But in my opinion employers are apt to exaggerate the resulting loss of earnings, at least in the long run. Greater freshness, better health and mental development that go with shorter hours may be relied upon within reasonable limits to make up, in many businesses at least, in part, for a shortening of working time, where the employer receives, as he should, the full co-operation of the employees to secure the largest possible production.

Obviously no limitation should be imposed upon the output of the individual, nor any rule be insisted upon by the employees which would hamper the most efficient use of machinery. Such arbitrary restrictions are wasteful and uneconomic at all times, and necessarily act as a brake on the movement towards shorter hours. The natural gain in vigor and working efficiency on the part of the employee should be allowed to show itself in the shop results. If this gain in potential efficiency is nullified by artificial limitations on what and how much a man shall do, with the facilities placed at his disposal, the decrease in working time must inevitably mean increased cost, without either economic or moral justification, and under such circumstances the employer has no other course open to him than that of resistance to any attempt to reduce the working time.

If in any case we should find that, despite the fullest co-operation of employees, the reduced working time results in immediate economic loss, the welfare of our democratic community compels us to work nevertheless for a reasonably short work day as a condition essential to the making of good citizens.

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