New York Times
December 22, 1996, Sunday

Quitting Time

 

By Michael Kazin

 

Kellogg's Six-Hour Day
By Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt.
261 pp. Philadelphia:
Temple University Press.
Cloth, $59.95. Paper, $24.95.

 

Americans have always believed in hard and steady work. During the early

years of the Republic, ''producers'' with callused hands and plebeian

manners condemned as ''aristocratic'' rich men who bought or hired others

to labor for them. This year the public overwhelmingly backed an end to a

welfare system that supposedly rewarded poor mothers who did no work --

although rearing young children seldom offers a life of leisure.

 

We do, however, have an alternative tradition -- of jobs as necessary

evils, machine-driven regimens that slowly waste the soul in return for a

wage. As Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, a historian at the University of Iowa,

points out in ''Kellogg's Six-Hour Day,'' the labor movement's first great

campaign was for shorter working hours. It was the responsible alternative

to just skipping one's job or performing it badly. ''Eight hours for work,

eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will,'' was the chant of

19th-century unionists, few of whom were content to stop there. They asked,

rhetorically, did not technological progress and the mounting abundance of

goods make possible a steady decrease in time spent on the job?

 

W. K. Kellogg agreed. In 1930 the corn-flake capitalist, a visionary who

burned to improve the economic order, announced that nearly all workers at

his huge plant in Battle Creek, Mich., would henceforth enjoy a six-hour

day. ''We are going to start something that has been talked about for

years, but nobody has had courage enough to do,'' a top Kellogg executive

proclaimed. The company anticipated greater efficiency from contented

employees, both male and female, who would now have enough time for their

families and, perhaps, a bit of volunteer labor at a local church or

school.

 

For nearly two decades it worked, according to Mr. Hunnicutt's many

sensitive interviews with retired Kellogg wage earners, which rescue the

text from being a dry, if original, academic narrative. Women, in

particular, appreciated the ''extra time'' for gardening, canning, visiting

and caring for sick relatives. Employees of both sexes welcomed the hiring

of additional workers -- this was the Depression. And most seem not to have

resented the dip in weekly pay that accompanied the shorter hours. One man

remembers, ''There was no complaints . . . as there were so many needy

people -- I think perhaps, people as a whole were more human then.'' In the

late 30's, a strong union did help boost overtime wages while preserving

Kellogg's plan.

 

But in a work-obsessed nation, the idyll could not last. After World War

II, Kellogg promoted a new ethic that tied higher wages to boosts in

productivity. Most male workers, eager to take part in the consumer

bonanza, began to demand an eight-hour day, and the union tended to take

their side against ''sissies'' who clung to the old way. The stern gospel

of higher wages for longer work gradually drowned out the sweeter, and now

mostly feminine, hymns to ''extra time.'' ''Even the word ''leisure'' had

become the butt of jokes and ribald comments, Mr. Hunnicutt writes. One

worker even claimed that the short shift ''was the reason for much

hanky-panky going on in both sexes!'' In 1985 the giant cereal company

eliminated the last six-hour job.

 

This valuable case study should help speed a rethinking of the

glorification of paid labor. It adds historical weight and precision to the

more passionate writings of the economist Juliet Schor, the sociologist

Stanley Aronowitz and the radical futurist Jeremy Rifkin, who similarly

question why so many must toil so long for such modest reward.

 

Yet in his attack on the work ethic, Mr. Hunnicutt, who has certainly found

his calling as a professor of leisure studies, ignores a major reason it

survives. Paid labor has been and can still be a creative force, as well as

an endless imposition. At times, machinists and journalists, nurses and

teachers, priests, union organizers and many other workers tolerate long

hours when their jobs are challenging, dramatic or essential to helping

people they know and like. Mr. Hunnicutt doesn't explore whether some of

the Kellogg men who favored eight hours were skilled craftsmen who found

their work more pleasing than did the six-hour women, who were usually

assigned to repetitive tasks.

 

He makes a compelling moral argument: no one should be expected to work

harder and harder for less and less joy. But more time off is not a

sufficient response. Why not redesign jobs so they offer workers an

intellectual challenge and a greater degree of control? Automation can,

over time, eliminate the most tedious occupations. But until life on the

job gets as much attention as life at the mall, millions of Americans will

continue to complain, as did one six-hour advocate in Battle Creek, that

when you went to work ''you left your mind at home.''