By Joe Jones
October 12 2020
So far in my ongoing research blog, I’ve discussed some of the most significant 19th Century moments in the trajectory of working time reduction (WTR) in the UK, and have argued that these moments were integral for setting up key campaigns in the 20th Century. In this post, I want to unpack the two most significant moments of UK WTR in the 20th Century: the post-war periods of both 1919 and 1945. More importantly, however, I want to highlight that the commonly understood pattern of UK WTR – that working time has sudden drops followed by prolonged, seemingly uneventful, plateaus – masks significant activity and organisation by trade union and labour groups, particularly in the interwar period.
The shape of working time reduction so far
Let’s first consider the trajectory of WTR commonly agreed upon, and often cited by scholars and policy-makers alike, in the 20th Century:
The general picture presented in most investigations (and promotions) of shorter working time is that historically working time in the UK has dropped suddenly and then plateaued for a number of years before another significant drop. It is commonly accepted that two of the most significant drops occurred after the World Wars respectively. A graph can’t display the political activities that attend and proceed after each of these drops, and it is my contention that this picture crucially misses the quantity and quality of trade union activity that went on in this period. To demonstrate this lets consider the first, and most significant, reduction in 20th Century working time – the 48-hour week in 1919.
Prior to 1919, the average working week in the UK was 50-60 hours per week, as discussed in my first blog post. On the run up to the First World War, the 48-hour week was a prominent and popular campaign, and “by 1910 over 1.1 million UK workers had a 48-hour week.” (Scott and Spadavecchia, 2011, p. 1269). By 1920 trade union membership in the UK reached 8.3 million workers. Between these dates union activity centred around improved working conditions, increased pay, and shorter working time. Strike action was common: a national coal strike took place in 1912, and while WTR striking subsided during the First World War, demands for a 48-hour week picked up again immediately after. As the UK transitioned to a peacetime economy, demands for a 48-hour week increased, whilst nationwide industrial action took place in 1921, leading to a general strike in 1926. While the UK government was amenable to this reduction, it was secured primarily through union action:
“The single largest reduction in average working hours took place in 1919 not through legislation, but rather through widespread collective bargaining agreements across industry that represented the culmination of years of trade union campaigning (together with the newly-formed International Labour Organisation’s call for an 8-hour day and 48-hour week). Similar reductions in hours took place across industrialised countries in 1919, though Britain was unusual in that government played ‘no direct role’ except in the industries it had taken into its control during the First World War” (The Times They Aren’t A-Changin’, 2020, p. 38)
The 20 interwar years may therefore look – if you go by the line graphs – like a period devoid of significant activity, but in reality it was an incredibly busy, fruitful, and important time for securing the longevity of the 48-hour week. While some scholars have cited this period as one of declining economic power (Dowie, 1975; Cole and Ohanian, 2002), the drop to a 48-hour week endured until the next significant reduction (after WW2), and the role of union activity was pivotal in securing this longevity.
Following the interwar period of union agitation that ensured the permanence of the 48-hour week, a remarkably similar process activity occurred after World War 2, but for the 45-hour week: labour agitation for WTR increased prior to the war, subsided during, and then picked up (with great success) immediately after.
“As had happened twenty-five years previously, labour scarcity during the Second World War helped to revitalize workplace trade-unionism…Working-time reductions were often achieved only through workers’ struggle. Immediately after the war, the unions pressed home their demands for a shorter week. As with the period following the First World War, the concessions were generalized” (Arrowsmith, 2002, p. 103-4)
Interestingly, the drop in 1945 occurred over a much longer period, with around 7 million workers obtaining a 45-hour week from 1945-1950. In 1946, 2.1 million manual workers had their standard working week of an average 48 hours reduced to 44 or 45 hours. In 1947 a further 5.2 million enjoyed the same; followed by 600,000 in 1948, one million in 1949, and 100,000 in 1950. Significantly, “in 1947 the proportion of days lost in strikes over hours of work was 18.7%, the highest for twenty-two years.” (ibid. p. 104). The role of union organisation and activity therefore cannot be understated during this period, and while the reductions themselves are obvious, the plateaus are more unclear: they might be understood instead as labour’s fight to keep the newly achieved WTR, rather than as the absence of activity.
There are links between this reading of the interwar period and the campaign for a 10-hour week in 1847. The initial success of a WTR campaign is often followed by a pushback when economic or social conditions change/improve, as with the initial victory of the 10-hour day in 1847, the regression in 1850, and the eventual re-victory in 1874. With the interwar period, we see a pushback in the years following the reduction, but concurrent striking and labour organisation, and the resultant plateau is one that is hard fought. The inter/post-war plateau, then, masks the important role played by unions in both achieving and maintaining WTR.
The reductions in working time achieved during the inter/post-war period are undeniably the most significant of the 20th Century, and while their importance is acknowledged by most scholars and policy-makers, the necessity of union and labour organisations to secure gains made in this period is often masked by the subsequent plateaus. As the attention on working time reduction increases, particularly as a potential tool for addressing economic recession brought about by Covid, this particular period of history might shed light on the additional conditions required to ensure that reductions made in coming years are lasting.
- Arrowsmith, J. (2002) ‘The Struggle over Working Time in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Britain’, Historical Studies In Industrial Relations, 13, pp. 83-117.
- Bangham, G. (2020) The Times They Aren’t A-changin’, Resolution Foundation. Available here.
- Cole, H. L. and Ohanian, L. E. (2002) ‘The Great U.K. Depression: A Puzzle and Possible Resolution’, Review of – Economic Dynamics, 5, pp. 19–44.
- Dowie, J. A. (1975) ‘1919-20 is in Need of Attention’, The Economic History Review, 28(3), pp. 429–450.
- Scott, P. and Spadavecchia, A. (2011) ‘Did the 48-hour week damage Britain’s industrial competitiveness?’, Economic History Society, 64(4), pp. 1266–1288.
- Lord Skidelsky; How to Achieve Shorter Working Hours (PEF Report, 2019)
Joe Jones is a doctoral researcher in the Philosophy department at the University of Kent. His research focuses on the philosophical implications of automation, and explores possible applications of the writings of Hannah Arendt to the future of work. As part of his partnership with Autonomy, Joe will be researching the social, political and economic history of working time reduction in the UK.