Black Thirty-Hour Bill

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The Black thirty-hour bill was introduced by Senator Hugo L. Black, a Democrat from Alabama, in December 1932 to establish a thirty-hour maximum workweek. The bill had diverse origins. During the 1920s some economists argued that the shorter workweek would improve the quality of life for working people and offset labor displacement resulting from technological change. The dramatic claims of the Technocracy movement, which emerged in 1932, reinforced concerns that technology contributed to unemployment. However, the shorter workweek was primarily viewed as a short-term expedient to ameliorate the Depression. During the Hoover years, it was central to the strategies of the President's Emergency Committee for Employment (1930–1931) and its successor, the President's Organization for Unemployment Relief (1931–1932). These agencies popularized work-spreading on the basis of its voluntary implementation by corporations to combat the unemployment emergency.

Herbert Hoover's establishment of the Share-the-Work movement in September 1932 reflected the president's commitment to this strategy. While there were many dissenting voices who believed that work-sharing was tantamount to spreading misery rather than relieving it, others believed that to be effective, work-sharing would have to be mandatory. Black's bill would have prohibited the interstate or international shipment of products that had been manufactured in any establishment where workers were on the job more than five days per week or more than six hours per day. Black contended that the shorter workweek was an alternative to public relief and a way of promoting economic recovery by spreading purchasing power.

Despite widespread reservations, the Senate passed the Black bill on April 6, 1933. This action spurred the Roosevelt administration to formulate a more comprehensive industrial recovery bill. Roosevelt was particularly concerned that the hours provision was too rigid and he condemned the measure as a "one paragraph bill" that would not contribute to economic recovery. After the bill's passage by the Senate, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins formulated a "substitute" bill that made provision for minimum wages, as well as maximum hours. Perkins's bill received widespread criticism from the business community, and business organizations sought to further their own interests in antitrust reform and self-regulation through trade associations. In April Roosevelt established a planning group that became the focus of intense lobbying by business groups seeking to promote industrial self-regulation through cooperative agreements, subject to government approval in the public interest. Organized labor demanded a government guarantee of the right of workers to belong to unions and to bargain collectively through them. In addition, Roosevelt's planning group considered a number of schemes to "start up" the economy, including federal subsidies and public works. Ultimately, a comprehensive recovery program emerged out of the brainstorming and lobbying that the single-issue Black bill had provoked. Federal regulation of working hours was one dimension of the National Industrial Recovery Act signed by Roosevelt on June 16, 1933.



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Himmelberg, Robert F. The Origins of the National Recovery Administration: Business, Government, and the Trade Association Issue, 1921–1933. 1976.

Moley, Raymond. The First New Deal. 1966.

Perkins, Frances. The Roosevelt I Knew, rev. edition, 1964.

Stuart Kidd