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Kellogg’s 6-Hour Day – Love Your Work, Episode 298

March 23 2023 – 07:30am

Kelloggs 6 hour dayIn the midst of the Great Depression, cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s switched to a shorter, six-hour day. This continued a trend that seemed inevitable: people would work less and less. But economic policies, management strategies, and cultural attitudes changed. The story of the rise and fall of Kellogg’s six-hour day is a microcosm of these changes, as well as of our attitudes about the roles of money, leisure, work, and women and men.

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In the book, Kellogg’s 6-Hour Day, historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt shares his findings in studying Kellogg’s shorter workday. His main sources of information were 434 interviews conducted by the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, 124 interviews he himself conducted of workers, and 241 responses to a survey he had sent. What follows is a summary of the story, and Hunnicutt’s findings.

Kellogg’s switched to a 6-hour day to create jobs

During the Great Depression, American businesses took on a policy of “work sharing.” The idea was that fewer would be unemployed if everyone shared jobs – more workers, working fewer hours. So, on December 1, 1930, W. K. Kellogg changed most departments in Kellogg’s Battle Creek, Michigan plant from three eight-hour shifts to four six-hour shifts.

A shorter workday had seemed inevitable

This continued a decades-long trend of shorter working hours. Labor activist William Heighton had written in 1827 that the workday should be reduced from twelve hours to ten, eight, and so on, “until the development and progress of science have reduced human labour to its lowest terms.” John Stuart Mill had written in 1848 about his vision for a “Stationary State”: After necessities were met, people would seek progress in mental, moral, and social realms. John Maynard Keynes would predict in the same year Kellogg’s switched to six hours, 1930, that we’d have a fifteen-hour work week by 2030. George Bernard Shaw and Julian Juxley had predicted a maximum two-hour workday by the end of the 1900s.

Other businesses shortened their workdays, too

Other businesses followed Kellogg’s’ lead. A survey by the Industrial Conference Board in 1931 estimated 50% of American businesses had shortened hours to save jobs. President Herbert Hoover was considering making a 6-hour day a national policy. In the 1932 presidential campaign, both major parties were advocating shorter hours.

The 6-hour day was the hot business topic

Not only did the six-hour day help create jobs, it seemed for a while like it was a better business policy. Forbes called it “the topic of discussion in the business world.” Business Week concluded it was profitable. The New York Times called it “a complete success.” Factory and Industrial Management magazine called the six-hour day, the “biggest piece of industrial news since Ford announced his five-dollar-a-day policy.”

At Kellogg’s, 15% more shredded wheat cases were being packed per hour. Profits had doubled in 1931, versus three years prior. After five years with the six-hour day, overhead costs had been reduced 25%, labor costs 10%, with 41% fewer accidents. W. K. Kellogg said, “We can afford to pay as much for six hours as we formerly paid for eight.” (That should be taken with a grain of salt. W. K. Kellogg took pride in crafting a public image as a “welfare capitalist,” as evinced by the full-page newspaper ads he took out, boasting how Kellogg’s had done its part. In reality, nearly half of workers later surveyed recalled that their wages were reduced.)

Kellogg’s returned to an 8-hour day for WWII

In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order to direct the maximum amount of manpower toward supporting the country’s fight in WWII. Kellogg’s responded in kind by temporarily returning to eight-hour shifts.

A rift formed between Kellogg’s management and the labor union

This was actually an opportunity the company had been looking for. Kellogg’s management and that at other companies were beginning to resent the six-hour day, and workers were becoming divided over whether they wanted a shorter workday, or more pay. In 1936, the National Council of Grain Producers had started a union chapter in Kellogg’s Battle Creek headquarters. W. K. Kellogg had been proud to pay what he considered the best hourly wages in town. During the first meeting with union officers, he wept, and kept saying, “If only they had come to me, I would have given them what they wanted.”

The union got an inch, and wanted a mile

After this point, the relationship between Kellogg’s workers and management became adversarial. W. K. had left in 1937, after the union came in, and at that point the union leaders had been pushing to not only have a six-hour day, in which they could earn a bonus based upon productivity, but they had also wanted time-and-a-half pay for working more than six hours in a day. Hunnicutt wrote, “More than any other union demand, this position would come to haunt Kellogg workers.” Demanding overtime pay on a six-hour day helped turn management against the shorter workday, and create a rift between workers who wanted higher wages, and workers who wanted shorter hours.

In the larger relationship between management and labor, the American Federation of Labor introduced a bill in congress, prohibiting goods produced by workers working more than thirty hours a week from being traded across state lines. Hunnicutt cites this as having shifted the business world’s stance on shorter hours from support to opposition.

Shorter hours became exploitation, longer hours a reward

In 1938, Kellogg’s management deepened the divide between six-hour and eight-hour workers by proposing they be allowed to schedule 40-hour weeks during periods of heavy production. Overtime became available instead of a productivity bonus. Senior workers had priority access to overtime, and so they lost interest in the productivity bonus.

So in the early 1940s, before the war, worker opinions were shifting to view shorter hours not as a benefit, but as instead an exploitation of workers – making them bear the brunt of fighting unemployment. And Kellogg’s was actively campaigning against shorter days, asking workers to consider how much more they would make working eight hours.

Human Relations Management saw work as life’s center

Meanwhile, the business world was shifting from a Scientific Management philosophy to a Human Relations Management philosophy. Scientific Management practitioners were obsessed with efficiency, but Human Relations Management practitioners were more interested in imbuing work with joy and meaning – making work its own reward. The Human Relations Management school envisioned that as work brought satisfaction, engineers and scientists would lead society into an orderly world, where desires met obligations, consumption met production, and work and leisure merged.

According to Humans Relations Management, time away from work and consumption was a relic of an illogical past. Instead of work becoming obsolete, giving way to more freedom, work would become the center of life, and help us ascend Maslow’s hierarchy.

Fewer workers wanted to return to 6 hours

After the war, many departments returned to six-hour shifts, but six-hour workers slowly lost their beloved shorter shifts over the following decades. Central to this struggle was how workers viewed leisure. Kellogg’s workers had previously voted to essentially “buy” shorter working hours, being paid less overall, in exchange for more leisure time. Employees used their time to improve their homes, go hunting, grow and can food in their gardens, and spend time volunteering in their communities. But slowly, workers became less interested in having time away from work.

Leisure was outsourced to mass media

One explanation from a worker Hunnicutt interviewed was, people were now outsourcing all things they used to spend time on. One place they were outsourcing to was mass media. Sports had been such serious business amongst Kellogg’s employees, they had hired “semi-pro” softball or basketball players to play on the teams. But why watch the company team play, when you can watch pros on television? One former six-hour worker bemoaned that even conversation had been outsourced – to radio, or television talk-show hosts.

Shorter hours became seen as weak and feminine

The question, Six hours or eight? became a gender issue. Early on, both men and women were interested in six-hour shifts. Three-fourths of men voted for six-hour shifts in 1937, but half of men were working eight hours by 1947. The six-hour departments began to be referred to as “girls’ departments,” doing “women’s work.” Management also assigned sick and disabled employees to the six-hour departments. Men who chose to work six-hours were labeled “sissies,” “lazy,” or “weird.”

Men saw work, not leisure, as a source of control and identity

Hunnicutt’s interpretation was that men were increasingly seeing work as a place for control and identity – that many hadn’t known what to do with themselves after their shorter shifts. They didn’t like spending more time at home and being assigned chores by their wives, or hearing what they considered gossip. As a result, men placed more importance on working longer hours – or at least appearing to. Hunnicutt said men he interviewed commonly claimed to have gotten second jobs while they were working six hours. How often is “commonly”?, he doesn’t say, but he points out only 35% ever did get second jobs.

Men felt they “had to” work long hours

This attitude, which we might today call “toxic masculinity,” extended into attitudes about leisure. When asked why they preferred longer hours, men spoke of necessity, and used dramatic language, saying they had to “keep the wolf from the door,” “feed the family,” and “put bread on the table.” When Hunnicutt pointed out to men who had been working in the 1950s that workers in the Great Depression had been willing to take pay cuts to have more free time, he says they got defensive, lectured him on “the facts of life economically,” called six-hours “nonsense” or a “pipe dream,” or dismissed the question as silly.

While Hunnicutt’s conclusions here are plausible, it seemed like he really wanted it to be true, and didn’t present men’s attitudes scientifically. There’s no mention of what earnings were relative to cost-of-living, and no acknowledgement of what these men’s roles might have been, truthfully, in the economics of their homes. There’s not even a mention of how throwing thousands of young men into the meat grinder that was WWII, tasked with saving the world, might have affected their own perceptions of what was expected of them. Though he did present a story of one man who had found that the extra money he made going back to eight hours was due to his ex-wife, as alimony.

A shorter workday became “a sexist ploy”

In the 1970s, Kellogg’s women worked with a local women’s-rights group, who presented the case that six-hour shifts were a sexist ploy meant to subjugate women. They demanded management “allow” women to have “full-time” jobs. Kellogg’s posted notices in the plant claiming that to make pay “comparable,” they were opening up eight-hour departments to women. In doing so, they skirted the issue: The activists had wanted not just comparable hours, but comparable hourly pay.

The 6-hour mavericks held on

Workers who stuck with the six-hour shift – who Hunnicutt calls “six-hour mavericks” – were about a quarter of the Kellogg’s workforce from 1957, into the 1980s. The union worked according to a department-by-department vote on the length of the day, so long as the six-hour workers didn’t interfere with the union majority’s strategy to try to get higher wages and more benefits.

With longer hours, efficiency fell by the wayside

Overtime had previously been thought of as a penalty to the company for being understaffed, but it became a way for workers to earn more money while the company’s staffing requirements remained flexible. According to Hunnicutt, with overtime instead of productivity bonuses, workers were less-motivated and careful. The company had to resort to being more controlling, motivating workers with fines, threats, and firings.

The death of the 6-hour shift

The increased benefits the union had fought for over the years may have worked against the six-hour shift. The final nail in the coffin was driven in 1984, when Kellogg’s threatened to relocate if workers didn’t vote to abandon the six-hour shift. So the six-hour workers gave in and voted to give it up. Some retired, some worked eight hours, but the coffin in which this nail was driven was both figurative and literal. The six-hour workers held a “funeral,” building a full-sized cardboard coffin, painted black, placed on the workroom floor, a cut-out skeleton placed inside.

Thus reversed a trend that had held on for over 150 years. The idea of less work and more leisure gave way to a stable amount of work, and more consumption.

It’s tempting to blame the death of the 6-hour shift on one of many juicy narratives. You could say people forgot how to spend their leisure time. You could say people were overly-materialistic, and wanted more money, instead of time. You could say toxic masculinity and a patriarchal society tipped the scales so those who wanted to work shorter hours were no longer in the majority. You could say the unions got too demanding and sabotaged the long-fought battle for a shorter working day.

All these are probably true to an extent. Ultimately, businesses want to, need to, maximize profit. They have to offer benefits to employees to stay competitive. To offer those benefits profitably, they need more work from fewer workers. If you believe the efficient-market hypothesis, if a shorter workday were indeed more profitable, some business would beat its competitors by offering one, and other businesses would follow suit.

So far, that hasn’t happened. If, as I believe, creativity becomes more important, productivity will be about Mind Management, Not Time Management, and a more-relaxed work schedule will be embraced. But probably not for boxing corn flakes.

There’s your summary of Kellogg’s 6-Hour Day

This episode is essentially a summary of the book, Kellogg’s 6-Hour Day, by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt. The book is very dense and written in an academic style, so I can’t recommend it unless you really want to dig deep into questions about work and leisure. It’s a provocative story that makes you wonder if we could be living in a world where a 6-hour day is standard. But it sounds like it wasn’t even close.

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