May Day was payday for Ford workers in 1926

It’s May Day! Time to run to the market, buy your mother some flowers, and secretly leave them on her doorstep. Or is that a tradition that only my family observes? I guess we didn’t get into the whole maypole thing.

May flowers aren’t the only reason to celebrate today. On this day in 1941, Citizen Kane was released. Ten years earlier, in 1931, the Empire State Building was dedicated. And 93 years ago, on May 1, 1926, Henry Ford gave his factory workers a gift much more valuable than a bouquet: a five-day, 40-hour work week.

Mr. Ford was well-known for pushing back when it came to labor negotiations. In fact, tensions between the Detroit automaker and its workers were so raw in 1937 that company security guards clashed with members of the United Auto Workers in a bloody showdown that became known as the Battle of the Overpass. To Ford’s credit, however, he knew when to say when.

In 1914, he succumbed to the pressure of widespread unemployment and labor unrest by announcing that Ford Motor Company would pay its male workers a minimum of $5 per eight-hour day, more than twice the $2.34 per nine-hour day they had previously been paid. Female workers were equally compensated beginning in 1916. While the wage increase reverberated throughout the auto industry, the move boosted productivity, loyalty, and pride among Ford’s workers.

Henry Ford standing next to a Model T in 1921
Henry Ford standing next to a Model T in 1921

The 40-hour work week had the same effect. Three months after the announcement, the Detroit automaker extended the policy to office personnel.

Ford had considered reducing the work week from six to five days as early as 1922, when it was certainly on the mind of company president Edsel Ford, Henry’s son.  “Every man needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation,” Edsel Ford told The New York Times in March that year. “The Ford Company always has sought to promote (an) ideal home life for its employees. We believe that in order to live properly, every man should have more time to spend with his family.”

When the 40-hour work week was announced in 1926, Henry Ford appeared to be in full agreement. “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.”

Other manufacturers began to follow Ford’s lead, but it took 12 years and a federal mandate to bring the entire country on board. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which placed limits on working hours: 44 hours a week at first, 42 the following year, and 40 by 1940—14 years after Ford’s game-changing announcement on May Day 1926.

Now, go buy your mom some flowers.

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