Henry Ford and the 40-hour work week

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Henry Ford more or less revolutionized the way that products were manufactured through the pursuit of lower manufacturing costs. This approach allowed Ford to fill the streets of America with affordable vehicles like the Model T – something no other company had been able to do. But you may not know that Ford also revolutionized the way that companies treated their labor force, including the implementation of the now-standard 40-hour work week.

Ford was one of the first proponents of a concept known as “welfare capitalism,” which states that if companies pay and treat workers well, it will encourage the best workers to stay at the company, reducing turnover and increasing productivity. Ford paid his workers a standard $5.00 wage per day, more than any other company in the area, and enough for Ford’s workers to be able to afford the cars they were building. This allowed Ford to hire the best people, which increased productivity and profits. To keep up with Ford, other companies were forced to increase their wages so they could hire and keep the best mechanics on staff.

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To further increase the quality of life for his workers, Ford instituted a five-day, 40-hour work week. Ford reasoned that if his workers had an extra day for leisure and shopping, they would be more productive when they were on the clock. Not only that, but that extra day of leisure would encourage the working class to go on vacations more often, which would therefore require them to own a car, which just happened to be the product that Ford made. Pretty smart, right?

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While Ford wasn’t the first person to implement a 40-hour work week at his company, he was definitely the first influential person to do so. Ford had enough competitors that the concept of a 40-hour work week quickly spread, just as his $5.00 per day wage had. Other manufacturers were forced to offer similar working terms in order to hire and retain the best staff and remain competitive. Eventually, this practice was codified into law, which made it the standard we see today.

Photos by: Paul Morgan, U.S. National Archives and Records AdministrationCreative Commons

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