When You Want to Fight Unemployment, Shorten the Workday

In the mid-20th century, union leader Harry Van Arsdale Jr became obsessed with a simple idea: fewer working hours would mean a need for more workers, and therefore more jobs. He considered it the solution to unemployment, and his union fought to realize it.

Harry Van Arsdale speaking at a press conference in 1966. (Bettman / Getty Images)

Harry Van Arsdale Jr was not the kind of union leader to sit behind a desk. Though he had two offices in New York City, he was more often seen on the back of a motorcycle racing across the city to meetings, rallies, and functions, or sometimes just to visit worksites to check up on members.

The union he led, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3, was a vital social organism in the city in the 1930s and ’40s. With the help of Arsdale’s boundless energy and inspiring vision, Local 3 became a union that pioneered incredibly successful social programs, deeply impacting the lives of its members and the broader community in the mid-twentieth century.

Though the unassuming Arsdale thought of himself as nonideological, in practice Local 3 displayed a radical commitment to the idea that all working people should be able to develop themselves to the fullest extent and enjoy all the cultural fruits that their labor makes possible.

The union’s groundbreaking and successful fight for a twenty-five-hour workweek was the prerequisite for other achievements in the realm of education and union-run cooperative housing. The experience of IBEW Local 3 demonstrates that labor unions can become powerful vehicles for enriching all aspects of workers’ lives.

Reforming Local 3

Local 3 was far from exemplary when Arsdale first became a member in 1925. Rife with corruption, the local was trusteed in 1926. IBEW vice president Howell H. Broach took over affairs and reported to the International on its dismal state in 1929: “Meetings ran wild, lasting until one and two in the morning. Dice shooters jammed the aisles, drinking went on freely, drunks played merrily — all while meetings were in progress.”

Arsdale became an expert at installing telephone machine switching equipment and steadily earned respect as a skilled electrician. He started speaking up more at meetings and became an active member who could cohere the various strains of rank-and-file dissatisfaction. He was made a business agent, the highest position in the union local, at the ripe age of twenty-six, after which his creative organizing abilities were on full display.

Even though electrical workers were hard hit by the Depression, Arsdale saw an opportunity for work in the growing popularity of movies. The Electrical Research Products Company was the major manufacturer of movie sound equipment, and it used nonunion workers. In protest of that practice, Arsdale organized union members to refuse to place cables in theaters, rendering the new sound equipment useless. After seven months, the company finally relented and agreed to only use union labor.

Arsdale wasted no time in cleaning up the local, undertaking ambitious organizing drives, and launching militant strikes. Given the financial duress caused by the Depression, officers lowered their salaries and even agreed to work for free when necessary. Quarterly financial reports were produced for members to review.

Public Works Administration (PWA) projects became an early target for organizing more of the city’s electricians into the local. For example, the Lincoln Tunnel was a PWA project, but the contractor — Mason and Hanger Company — wanted to use a combination of union and nonunion labor. Local 3 went on strike and carried out a mass demonstration at the groundbreaking ceremony, which embarrassed city officials and the company. Consequently not only did the Lincoln Tunnel project become all-union, but Arsdale lobbied Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to give all PWA work in the city to building trade union members.

Local 3 mounted high-profile and militant strikes against companies like General Railway Signal Company, Leviton Manufacturing Company of Brooklyn, Triangle Conduit and Cable Co., and Consolidated Edison. To prove a point, Local 3 blacked out the Times Square area for thirty minutes during its strike of Consolidated Edison. The vast majority of these strikes and organizing initiatives were successful, which grew the union’s membership rolls. Over time, the local also got more involved in political affairs. In 1935, it endorsed a Workers’ Rights Amendment authored by Vito Marcantonio and invited him to speak at their membership meeting.

Beyond the material gains made at the bargaining table, Arsdale fostered a renewed spirit and heightened morale among the rank and file. Irving Stern, director of organization at the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union Local 342, said about his leadership, “He felt the heart of the union were the rank and file. He used them in everything that the union was involved in that he tried to build.”

Arsdale had beefed up the local’s membership and made it a powerful force that raised labor standards throughout the city. But this was only one part of Arsdale’s ambitions. Now that Local 3 was on secure footing, he turned to making it a base for taking on perhaps the most important challenge for the labor movement: unemployment.

“The Only Sound Solution”

Unemployment was personal for Arsdale. His father, also an electrician, was often out of work for long periods of time. He reflected, “I remember when I was still in school, my dad would come home and throw his tool bag under the bed. He had been fired again for union activity. My mother would go into another room and cry and on my next trip to the butcher or the grocer I would have to notify them that my pop was out of work again.”

The massive unemployment caused by the Great Depression deepened Arsdale’s concern for the issue. A shorter workday seemed to him the only viable solution, as fewer hours meant more workers and more jobs. Early on in his union career he dedicated himself to this fight.

In August 1933, Arsdale introduced a resolution for a six-hour day and built up support among the membership. The local even wanted to go on strike for it, but the International rejected the plan. Local 3 continued to chip away, winning a seven-hour day and thirty-five-hour week without reduction of wages in the summer of 1934.

On August 13, 1937, Arsdale called a special meeting so the membership could give him the mandate to press for a six-hour day. A proposal was released to the New York Electrical Contractors Association and approved for an 8 a.m.–3 p.m. workday with one hour for lunch. In the local’s midyear newsletter, Arsdale explained, “A shorter workday is the only sound solution for the unfortunate millions who are still unemployed.”

Especially in the postwar period, fears of automation accelerated within the labor movement and the broader society. Arsdale recognized that labor would have to be proactive before the issue destroyed them, declaring, “There are going to be hundreds of thousands of workers made permanently unemployed by automation and other new developments unless we get our workers employed and the country ready for a four-hour day.”

He worked to cultivate institutional support for a shorter workday at the national level, not just within Local 3. In 1959, Arsdale led a nine-hundred-man delegation to Washington, DC, for a national American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) conference to “get America back to work” and called for a National Council of the Unemployed to secure full employment. Locally he spearheaded a Central Labor Council conference on automation, and convinced thirty-nine locals to set up shorter workweek committees.

The stage was being set for a showdown on this issue with New York City’s electrical contractors — and Arsdale felt that if he could win a dramatic reduction in the workday in his own local, it could help spark a movement nationwide. In December 1961, he announced that Local 3 electricians would strike on January 1 for a four-hour workday and twenty-five-hour workweek, with a mandatory hour a day of overtime.

Naturally, these radical demands sent the press and the political class into a frenzy.

The New York Times said it would drive construction costs “prohibitively high” and create more unemployment, or “the no-hour day and no-day week” as they put it. Further, “Labor will only lose public sympathy altogether if it should close ranks behind such exaggerated demands as those of Mr Van Arsdale.”

Arsdale shot back in a letter on December 20: “The no-hour day and no-day week has existed for some time in our society. . . . We are seeking a better America where the skills of American workers will not be allowed to rot because of unemployment or the triumphs of computer technology or the impersonal workings of the marketplace.”

On January 11, 1962, nine thousand electricians went on Local 3’s first general strike since 1941. It only took eight days for them to win a resounding victory: a twenty-five-hour workweek, the shortest ever in a union contract.

This victory was also a significant breakthrough for racial equality. In order for the agreement to work, more apprentices needed to be hired. Local 3 partnered with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and National Urban League to make sure that hundreds of black and Puerto Rican workers would be brought into the union through these new apprenticeships.

Civil rights leaders recognized the significance of Local 3’s victory. At the end of 1963, the Urban League gave Arsdale its Equal Opportunity Award, presented by Whitney Young and A. Philip Randolph. In his speech presenting the award, Randolph said, “As head of Local 3 you are the first to provide a large number of apprenticeships for Negro youths . . . because you had the vision and understood the significance of the march of science, technology and automation and what it would mean to workers, you started the campaign for the reduction of the workday and obtained the twenty-five-hour week.”

Bayard Rustin saw this win as a small-scale model of what could be achieved through his proposed Freedom Budget for All Americans. In one of his speeches promoting the plan he said, “I think the Freedom Budget can provide the context in which unity would not only be possible but imperative. When for instance, the IBEW Local 3 won a reduction in the workweek in New York under the leadership of Harry Van Arsdale, three hundred of the thousand new apprenticeship openings went to Negroes.”

Local 3’s victory was a powerful demonstration that breaking down racialized employment barriers in the building trades has to be done in the context of expanded employment opportunities, not in the context of scarcity. In fighting for a shorter workweek and against unemployment, Arsdale and his union also proved that there was no separation between labor and racial justice.

A Humanitarian Vision

The ruling class was not so sweet on Local 3’s triumph. The Kennedy administration denounced the deal as inflationary. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who always had a zest for going after union leaders, even ordered an FBI investigation in a failed attempt to prove that Arsdale had coerced contractors.

But there was no denying that this dramatically shortened workday would have huge implications. Fortune magazine declared, “Van Arsdale’s victory is sure to echo in union halls and at negotiating tables for some time to come.”

Labor reporter A. H. Raskin wrote about the global impact of the agreement in a March 11 New York Times Magazine article: “An AFL-CIO representative in Africa found Nairobi textile and railroad workers agog at Van Arsdale’s accomplishment. . . . Swiss building trades workers, arguing with their own federation over the merits of a cut in the forty-five hour week, made Van Arsdale their champion.”

Arsdale continued to insist that the fight was part of a broader project for structural economic change. After the contract victory he explained to the press: “I’m more interested in full employment than in the twenty-five hour week. We have full employment in war. Why can’t we have it for humanitarian reasons? Basically I wanted to dramatize the problem of unemployment.”

He continued to press for a shorter workday nationwide, and thanks to his efforts the six-hour day became the official goal of the International’s Building and Construction Trades Department.

In a way, establishing a shorter workday was just a prerequisite for the more ambitious goal of enriching working peoples’ lives. Back in 1939, after Local 3 achieved the six-hour day, Arsdale authored a resolution that read, “With the six-hour day, thirty-hour week in effect in the electrical industry . . . the workers now have the necessary time for self-improvement and adult education . . . it is in reality a gigantic educational effort.”

A 1963 documentary on automation shows Arsdale pontificating, “We’ve been trained to think of property value. How long is it gonna take until we get around to human value?”

IBEW Local 3’s achievement is an inspiring example of labor’s effort to structure society around human value, and should challenge oversimplified stereotypes about the building trades being a bastion of conservatism. Fortunately, it appears that now more unions are taking up Arsdale’s call to make the workday a central bargaining issue, with the United Auto Workers recently embracing the demand for a thirty-two-hour workweek at its Big Three auto plants.

As we face the growing threat of artificial intelligence and renewed fears of mass unemployment, Arsdale’s wisdom about the shorter workweek as “the only sound solution” is coming to the forefront once again.