Hugo Black was Senator from Alabama from 1927 to 1937 and a Supreme Court Justice from 1937 to 1971. The Black Thirty-Hour Bill was passed by the US Senate, 53-30 on April 6, 1933 (a 1934 version of the bill). According to Hunnicutt, passage of the Black Bill gave the impetus to the Roosevelt administration to develop and implement a recovery program.
The Shorter Work Week and Work Day
By Hugo L. Black
THE desire on the part of the people to adjust the work day and the work week to the needs and demands of the time is in accord with social justice and economic necessity. It is an effort to stimulate human genius to nobler inventive activities; to raise the output of civilization’s vast productive machinery; to supply mankind with more of the comforts Nature has provided for his happiness; to give to labor a fairer return for the expenditure of energy; to provide jobs for all; and to afford opportunities for rest and recreation for all, instead of long hours for some with enforced idleness and misery for others. Those who advocate a shorter work day and work week abhor the 'economy of scarcity' that must inevitably result from long hours and low wages.
Long work hours and low wages, under our complex system of exchange and commerce, do not justify the often asserted, but wholly superficial, excuse that production is thereby increased. Our economic history should now prove to the most hidebound worshiper of inordinate profits and the most subservient student of economic dogmas, that long hours and low wages ultimately lower the level of production, retard the improvement and expansion of the tools and machinery of output, close factories, cause the abandonment of mines, paralyze business, and bring about destitution and human suffering among helpless millions of people.
The so-called boom and prosperity period of the nineteen-twenties was a time when the philosophy of long hours and low 'real' wages was given ample opportunity to bring forth its fruits. Men and women worked ten, fifteen, and even sixteen hours per day. While figures and money payments have been juggled in such manner as to mislead many to believe that wages were high, the cold statistics of that period, gathered by impartial agencies, show that labor received a smaller and smaller proportion of its own products, and that a greater and greater part went to profits and property. The cumulative effects of this unbalancing and unjust distribution of income resulted in decreased ability of the workers to buy. Our economic system produces only to sell. Whatever is the cause of inability of potential customers to buy is likewise the cause of the inability of producers and merchants to sell; of the consequent failure to produce; and of the resulting collapse of employment and business in general.
But, someone says, did not wages go up in the nineteen-twenties? On the contrary, the real wages of industrial workers and wages of farmers (measuring farmers’ wages by farm prices) both descended, in proportion to goods and services produced, and in relation to income flowing to profits and property.
Loss Through Inadequate Incomes
This increase in large incomes and decrease in small incomes by 1929 tells us why savings increased and over-expansion occurred. Theoretically, there was no overexpansion in many industries, because people actually needed the products. Practically, however, there was overexpansion because the output could not be sold. Year by year, the system of distribution of incomes had reduced the chief purchasers in ability to buy, and had increased the proportion of those whose personal wants were already satisfied, and who were therefore unable to buy more, and were compelled to invest.
Since business could not sell at its price, it reduced production, thus intensifying an 'economy of scarcity.' Ten million workers and then fifteen million workers lost all income. Probably fifteen million more worked part-time with reduced income. Production shot down, and the greatest waste in human history began its assault upon American life. It has been estimated that, expressed in dollars, this country has lost since 1929, two hundred to four hundred billion dollars’ worth of production of useful goods and services as a result of idle machinery, plants, lands, equipment, and men. This was not because of shortened hours. It followed long hours and unfair real wages. The loss in actual goods and services is infinitesimal in comparison with the injury to the health and the moral and physical stamina of the millions of harassed and jobless men and women. No money price would be too great to pay in order to remove this blighting disease that threatens our civilization. Already, however, we find a growing group insisting that we accept unemployment as inevitable and get out with the least possible money by adopting the most niggardly and character-destroying dole. They are thus willing to threaten the safety of succeeding generations in order to buy peace at the cheapest price for themselves.
Bargaining Power Needed
More than five years ago I said that this nation must choose between a dole and shorter hours of work; that is still my belief. But, unfortunately for America, the champions of the conditions that make the dole a part of our economic life are apparently gaining ground. Private business in America must support the people either through wages or taxes. It can give jobs or doles.
The only chance for labor to receive enough of the income from our national business system to buy the products of that system is through its own bargaining power or through operation of law. A single laborer in our present complex business system, with its constant oversupply of labor, has no bargaining power. He can work for the price offered, or go hungry. Only about 10 per cent of the workers belong to independent labor unions. Some of this 10 per cent have succeeded in obtaining reasonably fair working conditions and wages. It is a long step, however, to unions with sufficient numerical strength to obtain incomes sufficient to balance purchasing power with production.
A work week and a work day short enough to create an actual scarcity of labor, thereby causing employers once again to bid for labor, would be a wholesome economic tonic for America. Our greatest progress has been made when workers could actually bargain with their employers. Our industry expanded by leaps and bounds when men who were not given a decent wage could go to the unopened farms of the frontier.
It is nothing short of absurd to assert that a thirty-hour week would reduce production in America. As a matter of fact, it would greatly increase production. Every realistic observer of economics and business knows that production responds to effective demand. Desire may be created by skillful advertising, or it may result from an inherent need; but if this desire actually stimulates an increased production, it must be backed up by an ability to buy. The same system that produces and sells must supply the means to buy from such production and sales. If private industry should be compelled today to shorten the hours so as to create labor conditions under which employers would be required to bid for workers, every added dollar paid to labor would return to business. In addition, the effective demand of these workers would speed up production, require more efficient operation, and make useful inventions profitable.
Shorter Week Would Increase Production
To one who is familiar with the oscillations of the so-called 'business cycle' over a period of years, as distinguished from its results during any one particular year, the professed fears of 'reduced production' are laughable. Let us consider briefly the effect on the ten-year period from 1880 to 1940. The first five years of that period are history. Suppose the thirty-hour week, or some other week that would have employed the labor and given it bargaining power, had gone into effect January 1, 1880. (There is no magic in any particular number of weekly hours, so long as the result is obtained.) Certainly there has been no time since 1930 when national production would have been diminished by reason of the adoption of such shorter hours. No one would be so foolish as to predict that the next five years will require such a phenomenal production, if old unregulated hours should continue, as to raise the average for the ten-year period above the thirty-hour level.
In fact, national production would have been greater with a thirty-hour week since 1930, because many jobless with no money would have been transformed into workers and purchasers with money able to buy and stimulate production. Nothing but purchasers with means to buy has ever brought about production under our system, and nothing else ever will.
It is not the fear of laws that makes mills idle. It is not the fear of taxes. It is only the knowledge or belief that the output cannot be sold at a profit. There is no actual shortage of factories, mines, mills, or farms in America today, able to produce what can be sold. There is no shortage of capital. There is no shortage of men and women who want and who need the output of our business system. There is, and there has been for a long time, a shortage of purchasing ability possessed by our greatest customers, namely, the men, women, and children of the United States. Give them jobs. When more is produced, give them their part, exactly as they would get the fruits of their own labor if they were producing under the old handicraft system, where they could see, handle, and control the finished output. Do not subject our American workers to the crushing and destroying competition of ten to fifteen million jobless, eager for work and frequently hungry for food. Shorten the hours fairly and uniformly for all business enterprises that compete with each other, thereby supplying work for the jobless. Do this, and the fantastic, if not fictitious, dream that shortening hours will decrease production will go the way of other dogmas invented from age to age to retard opportunity for the many in order to bestow too much on the few.
Adequate Income Necessary
The farmers, the employees, and the small business and professional groups make up the greater proportion of our population. If farmers and workers secure inadequate incomes to buy the products of farm and factory at fair prices, these products cannot be sold. Unfortunately, our foreign trade has dwindled to the point where it is much less than 10 per cent of our total commerce. The fate of the United States worker and the amount of his income play a most important part in determining the price he can pay for the farmers’ products. It is also true that the price the farmer is able to pay for the goods of the mines and factories is determined by his income from his crops. The disaster that occurs to farmers, factories, mines, railroads, and business in general when the just return of farmers and workers is diverted from them into other channels was seen when business collapsed and folded up following 1929. This diversion from the farmer and the worker has proved that excessive capital in industry eventually helps no one, but injures, and sometimes destroys, both those from whom it was taken and those who took it.
I conclude by saying that no one has proved and no one can prove that a thirty-hour week would reduce production. I insist that it would greatly enhance production in any line of business.
In addition to this, it would put millions of jobless to work, taking them out of the deteriorating atmosphere of the idle and restoring them to the desirable status of self-supporting citizens. From 1920 to 1930 the factory workers’ productivity increased 44 per cent. Since 1930 this productivity has increased another 28 per cent. In March 1935 our factory production reached 91 per cent of the 1923-1925 production, but the factory employment of labor was only 82 per cent and the pay rolls only 71 per cent. This 91 per cent of production occurred with more than eleven million workers still out of work. If production had gone to 100 per cent of normal, we would still have had more than nine million unemployed.
Who can say what labor-saving improvements another generation will develop, and who believes that it is necessary for man to do the work that can now be done with the energy of our wood, our coal, our oil, our running streams, our tides, and perhaps sometime with the energy diffused by the rays of the sun? It has been my observation that most of the eulogies and panegyrics written on the glories of hard physical labor were spoken or written by those who either had never done it themselves or who had ceased to bend their backs or strain their muscles at the very first opportunity.