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Standard Working Hours

c.June 7-14 — 1911, 38th Annual Session of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, Boston MA


In the lives of working people, no single factor counts as much for good or ill as the length and regularity of their working hours. Even such important matters as wages, housing, and insurance are subordinate. No reform is as important as the adjustment of work to human effort. All the possibilities of life, the worker’s whole plane of existence rises and falls with his scale of time expenditure.

This sounds like exaggeration; but it is literal truth. Work any man or woman to the point of exhaustion and a higher or lower standard of living becomes a meaningless phrase. Offer what opportunities yon will to the exhausted organism, they fall upon ears literally deafened as science has demonstrated. Offer even heartier diet, ampler food, and it cannot be digested. It would be no more unreasonable to expect to cure an arsenic or phosphorus poisoned person by higher wages, a clean house, or old age insurance, while he continued daily to absorb the poison than to expect to cure an exhausted worker by those means.

This is true because the exhausted person is literally and actually a poisoned person — poisoned by the body’s waste products. Fatigue is not a philanthropic or sentimental fiction; it is a chemical fact. It la the signal which gives warning that the limit of capacity is approaching. Exhaustion follows when the signal is disregarded, and the organism is pushed to further forced exertions.

For the past half century, scientists have been studying the intri cate problem of fatigue and learning its laws, in the seclusion of the laboratory. During the same period working people and their friends, against the most powerful opposition, have been seeking legislation protecting from industrial over-fatigue and exhaustion. Between the two groups there has been an unbridged abyss. Those who have sought legislation year after year, so often in vain, have not even known that there were laws of fatigue, the scientific and demonstrable basis for their claims. On the other hand, scientists and physicians have studied muscle and nerve, frog jerk and pigeon flight in infinite detail, without as yet applying the laws and facts so acquired to the phenomena of fatigue in the largest classes of our population, the wage earners.
A hundred years ago in England the efforts began to obtain legislative protection for the workers. After a century of human experience, it remains true that in our country the most helpless workers are the most exploited. Men are working twelve hours a day and seven days a week in Bethlehem and Pittsburg and other steel centres; women are being worked twelve and fourteen hours a day in laundries and box factories and many industries subject to seasonal pressure. In only ten states children are protected by an eight hour law. There are more cheering facts to be considered, but for examples of the extreme overwork existing today among working men, let any one read the Government report on the steel industry in Bethlehem, reinforced by Fitch’s “Steel Workers.” For the overwork of women, let anyone read the Government report on “Wage Earning Women and Children,” six volumes of which have now appeared; or the special Government re ports on the telephone service and the work of women in Chicago just before the ten hours law went into effect.

So far as concerns women, we have every year the edifying spectacle of the powerful manufacturers association or retail merchants’ association at the state capitols using all their influence to defeat legislation sought in order to make impossible such overwork as the Government reports describe. This very year in California, Colorado, Washington, Delaware, Illinois and almost every state where legislation to protect working women has been sought, the manufacturers’ association has  been actively and officially in the field, opposing any laws at all where none have hitherto existed as in California and Missouri, op posing extension of the laws as in Illinois and New York, raising the well worn cry that industry will be ruined.

These powerful interests pursue a most short sighted policy, ignorant that economically as well as physically the long day defeats their own best interests and that output and productivity rise with the shorter working day. To counteract such influences we need to utilize all resources at our command. We need to make it plain that the limitation of working hours is based upon fundamental laws of physiology. The scientists have not yet devised the means of studying industrial fatigue in the workshop as they have perfected means of studying fatigue in the laboratory. The problem is far more difficult, complicated as it is, by the many psychological stimuli and motives which make up our daily life. Thus, for instance, an effort was made to study the fatigue of working girls by ordinary methods of laboratory investigation and it was found that the interest of the experiments or the excitement of the approaching closing hour made the girls seem fresher and more vigorous at the close of a long day than at the beginning. What we need are not isolated studies with inappropriate methods of measurement, but comprehensive plans for consecutive studies of the new problems.

To gauge industrial fatigue and study the far-reaching effects of overwork among industrial workers is a large undertaking. It can never be carried out adequately by existing agencies. Even medical inspectors of factories (hitherto almost totally lacking in our labor departments, but undoubtedly soon to be added) are not equipped to do this work.

What we need are institutions like the newly founded Labor Clinic for Industrial Diseases in Milan, with its regular course of lectures and investigation both in laboratory and workshop. In its program for 1910-11 the first subject for laboratory research was fatigue, and the resultant modifications of the organism. Is there any medical or scientific body of the United States engaged in such systematic study of industrial workers? There is none known to the writer.

No need is more urgent than to obtain accurate information as to the effects of occupations, as they exist to-day and under American conditions of labor. And this need of information about the effect of occupations is more important concerning working women, both because their morbidity or rate of sickness is higher than among working men, and because the absence of strong trade organizations among women makes them, more than men, dependent for protection on the laws.

These facts as to the health of the wage-earners are needed not only for the information of the legislators who frame the laws, but for the judges who must decide their constitutionality. And here wc face a more cheering outlook.
Within the last three years the attitude of the courts toward the legal protection of working girls and women has been greatly modified. Three years ago the prospects for shortening women’s hours of labor looked dark. The eight hours day seemed in the remote future. Even the ten hours day was on sufferance.

The Supreme Court of Illinois had said, in 1895, that working women did not need and could not have legal protection from over work. The effect of that decision persisted for thirteen years, paralyzing action in all the states. In January, 1908, the United States Supreme Court changed the atmosphere by asserting the right of states to protect the health and welfare of working women, by limiting their hours of labor. Within the next two years, the highest courts of three states —Illinois, Michigan and Louisiana —followed suit.

These decisions have freed the subject of women’s hours of labor from narrow technicalities. The protection of women from overwork, is recognized as one of the great issues of any nation, in its effects on health and welfare, on social and economic life.

The effect of these decisions has been electrical. During the first three months of 1911, three states passed eight hour laws: California,
Washington and Colorado. Two states have passed nine hour laws, Missouri and Utah. Delaware passed a ten hours law, but it failed to receive the Governor’s signature. Three of these states, California, Missouri and Utah, had previously had no laws protecting women from overwork excepttwo laws about work in mines.

All these new laws, are particularly valuable in setting a fixed and definite limitation of the day’s work. Eight or nine hours work is provided; there is no allowance for overtime. This is indeed one of the most important tests of effectiveness in laws limiting women’s hours of labor; do they or do they not permit exceptions for over time work, depriving women of protection at the very times when most urgently needed?

Thus,  for instance, in Connecticut, Louisiana, New York, and Oregon, the laws which prohibit the employment of women in stores more than a specific number of hours, are totally suspended during the Christmas rush. When the work is most exhausting, the hours are left unlimited.

So, too, in seven states, Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island, the laws allow the day’s work to be lengthened at the employer’s will, only providing a fixed limit of hours by the week. Overtime is permissible every day but one, so long as the weekly total of hours is not exceeded.

Such an arrangement encourages one of the worst evils in industry: irregularity of work. Physically the working girl is not compensated by a shorter workday on Saturday, if she has been exhausted by days of overstrain. The rest comes too late, and as science has proved graphically and we all know by experience, the fundamental thing in rest is the time at which it comes. A muscle, artificially tired in the laboratory by a doubled amount of exertion, takes not twice as long, but four times as long to recuperate. The same is true of our total health. Fatigue is a debt to be paid not at simple but at compound interest.
So when seven states provide that work shall not exceed 58 or 60 hours as the case may be, but leave the day’s work unlimited, the workers cannot be considered adequately protected.
From the point of view of enforcement, too, these lax laws are damaging. The whole test and crux of such laws  —  indeed their whole excuse for being —is precisely their enforcibility and enforcement. We do not want laws limiting the work-day for the sake of having them on the statute books or for any academic purpose whatever. We want them purely for the sake of controlling the length of the workday.
Now when overtime is allowed after the day’s work, it is almost impossible to enforce the law. When an inspector finds girls at work late in the evening, he cannot tell, without returning each day, whether a shorter compensating day is granted later in the week, to balance the overtime. Unless the inspector should remain bodily on the prem ises, he cannot tell when work stops.

This brings up the important subject of the fixed legal closing hour. We can realize how rudimentary our labor legislation for women still is from the fact that only three states prohibit women’s night work after a specified hour. These three states are Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Indiana. And the Nebraska law is today hanging in the balance, its constitutionality on trial in the courts. Thus in contrast to the action of the fourteen civilized nations of Europe who have signed an international treaty to abolish night work for women, we have only three states, only one great industrial state, which have so legislated.

The opposition to protecting women from night work, the interests which demand such an inversion of normal life, can be gauged from the experience of Delaware last winter. A bill was introduced into the legislature prohibiting the employment of women after 10 P. M. in a wide range of industries. After great efforts of persuasion and with many amendments the bill was passed. These are the places of employment exempted from the provision against night work after 10 P. M.: laundries, canneries, telephone exchanges, restaurants, candy- stores, ice-cream saloons, and department stores between December 11th to 25th—precisely those establishments where night work and late evening overtime are notorious. Even this small measure of protection which remained was lost to the working women of Delaware through Governor Pennevill’s refusal to sign the bill.

The question at once arises whether such work is necessary and inevitable? Is it unreasonable to ask that working women, handicapped by the physical burdens of sex, be protected by law from work under the most exhausting conditions, that is, at night and late in the evening after the day’s work? The answer is found in the experience of the past. Such work will be considered necessary and inevitable until it is positively prohibited by law. Then it is not unreasonable to expect that, as in all the previous similar dilemmas, greater efficiency and ingenuity will devise means of substitution. There has never been a single forward step in the protection of the workers, not one reduction of the hours of labor, which has not been considered difficult and even impossible until men have learned to adapt them selves to it.

For example, the laundries — the hours of labor in the exhausting laundry occupations are notoriously excessive. They run up to twelve and fourteen hours at the end of every week. It is claimed that such hours of work are unavoidable, because the laundries are obliged to return promptly linen from hotels, barber shops, restaurants and steam ship companies, as well as private families. But another way out of the dilemma, and as must be apparent to every housekeeper a more efficient solution, has been adopted where linen cannot be laundered at a moment’s notice. These establishments, which had previously insisted upon the almost immediate return of their linen have been obliged to lay in a larger stock. There does not appear to be any reason why such a solution should not be adopted instead of the indefensible overwork of girls and women until midnight or later. It is automatically adopted, when it is necessary.

Irregularity of work involving long days of overtime is one of the evils due to inefficient management which the new scientific management of industrial establishments will assist in reducing. It has already done so in numerous establishments. For instance, the shoe trade has long been one of the industries subject to seasonal pressure, overwork alternating with enforced idleness. One of the large shoe factories in the United States has worked out a system whereby each month’s output is accurately reckoned in advance. Instead of compressing the work into several short seasons of excessive hours, it has been spread uniformly over the year. Orders must be received by specified dates, and are executed also at dates fixed in advance. Overtime has been wholly done away with. The regularity of work which has replaced it is as advantageous financially to the employers, as it is in every way for the employees.

But it is only the most progressive and enlightened employers who are far-sighted enough to inaugurate such changes spontaneously. It is so much easier, so much more in line with natural human inertia, to keep employees at work who are on the premises rather than plan work in advance, that overtime takes on the appearance of actual necessity. But when the law authoritatively intervenes to protect workers helpless to protect themselves, the standards of the backward employers are forced upward.

An interesting example of the effect of legislation on employment in the telephone service may be seen in Louisiana. Before 1908 there was no special legislation restricting hours of labor which affected telephone operators. In that year the employment of girls under 18 years was prohibited between 7 P. M. and 6 A. M. At that time there was a large proportion of operators under 18 years of age. The Bureau of Labor’s investigators reported in 1910 that the Cumberland Telephone Company at New Orleans still employed 25.5 per cent, operators under 18 years of age. But they were all on day work. They could not be worked at night nor in the evening.

In the neighboring state of Georgia, no law affected the employment of telephone operators. The Bureau of Labor reported that in Atlanta 26.1 per cent of all operators were under 18 years of age. Instead of being on the day force, as in Louisiana, 12.5 per cent of these young girls were on evening work, 15 per cent were employed at night, and 25 per cent were on the split-time force — all three being forms of employment wholly objectionable for girls under 18 years.

Indeed, the whole history of textile legislation both in England and in Massachusetts, our oldest industrial state, shows how legislation limiting thelength of the workday has been enacted in the face of constant opposition, and how the industry subject to the strictest and most definite regulation has thriven.

No arguments are more telling than the fact that Massachusetts, like England before it, has had to amend its legislation steadily in the direction of greater rigidity and exactness precisely in order to get its laws enforced.

The Massachusetts textile law is the fruit of almost forty years of experience. After two commissions of investigation in 1866 and 1867, the first Massachusetts law for women was enacted in 1874. Since that date to the present day, there has been a slow movement, making the law more and more rigid and definite in its requirements, as experience proved how enforcement was hindered by the laxness of the earlier statutes. The present law prohibits the employment of women in textile mills after 6 p. m. and before 6 a. m., or more than ten hours in one day or fifty-six hours in one week. Now Massachusetts, so long the leader in legislation for working women, has been overtaken and passed by the states which have enacted eight and nine hour laws during 1911.

Indeed, the example of Massachusetts was a menace to the success of the eight hour bill in California this winter. Cotton mill owners in Oakland resented the prospect of the eight hours day and 48 hours week, while Massachusetts still allowed the 10 hours day and 56 hours week, and did their utmost, unsuccessfully, to defeat the bill.

Even stranger than the spectacle of Massachusetts as a drag on the progress of other states in the protection of women, is Massachusetts conspicuous by its absence from the list of states who protect working children. Is it not incredible that in the State of Massachusetts, as in every state where the textile industries are strong, young boys and girls on reaching their fourteenth birthday may be worked 10 hours in the day? Adult workingmen are obtaining the eight hours day for themselves by trade agreement in many great industries throughout the country. Only ten states have as yet given the same measure of protection to young children, between the ages of 14 to 16 years, the most critical years of adolescence. These states are: Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and North Dakota in the Far West; Wisconsin, Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio in the Middle West; the District of Columbia and New York in the East.

But neither Massachusetts nor any other textile state has so legislated. This is not chance. It is deliberate design. The textile industry needs children. Shall it be allowed to work them contrary to the most obvious laws of health? Will Massachusetts be content to remain in the rear of the procession, so far as concerns her working children in the mills? Or will she return to her role of pioneer and be the first textile state to pass an eight hour law for children? Such a bill has been twice defeated, in the Massachusetts legislatures of 1909 and 1910. It has yet to be acted on by the legislature of 1911.



Source: Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, at the Thirty-eighty Annual Session held in Boston, Mass, June 7-14, Edited by Alexander Johnson (Fort Wayne, Indiana: Press of the Archer Printing Co.),  1911, pp. 179-186.