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Two Letters, Same Message: A Walk through History and my Neighborhood

by William McGaughey

A. The letters

Star Tribune reporter Peg Meier’s book, Bring Warm Clothes: Letters and Photos from Minnesota’s Past, on page 284 includes a letter written in 1931 by L. G. Anderson, who lived at 726 Queen Avenue North in Minneapolis, to then Minnesota Governor Floyd B. Olson. It reads:


“ Honorable Floyd B. Olson
Governor State of Minn.

Dear Sir:

If I may be permitted to offer my idea of a solution to the employment situation I would suggest that the six hour day is in my humble opinion the best solution for the following reasons. In this age of Automobile transportation and modern machinery it stands to reason that there cant be 8 hours a day work left for all the people that have to work for a living, any emergency appropriation to furnish work ... will simply make matters worse in the future and why should 3/4 of the working people be required to work 8 hours a day and support the idle 1/4 with what they make instead of everybody working 6 hours a day and all supporting themselves.

We know from experience what a holler there was when we changed from 10 to 8 hours lots of people said it was ridiculous, but it worked and worked fine so why not progress ...

One more thing we all know to be true if more people have jobs more money will be spent more merchandise bought and more work created for instance if 100 people earn $150.00 a month they will put nearly all of it back in circulation while 50 people earning $300.00 per month might salt away nearly half of it thereby taking it out of circulation by this I do not mean that wages would be cut, that would be a calamity. Prices must be kept up or our whole house would come tumbling down. So let’s hope that this 6 hour day gets a tryout soon.

Yours very respectfully,

L.G. Anderson
726 Queen Ave. No.
Minneapolis”

 

Governor Olson responded in the following letter:

“ Dear Mr. Anderson:

I have your letter of January 17, containing suggestions with reference to the relief of the unemployment problem. I want to thank you for your interest in this matter, and to assure you that I am giving the question of unemployment my earnest consideration.

Yours very truly,

Floyd B. Olson
Governor of Minnesota”

 

In 2014 - eighty-three years later - the unemployment problem was still with us. Another resident of Minneapolis, William McGaughey, who lives at 1702 Glenwood Avenue in Minneapolis, published an opinion article in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, again advocating shorter work hours as a solution to this problem. See article. He followed up on this publication by sending the following letter on January 31st to his representatives in Congress: Rep. Keith Ellison, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Sen. Al Franken. The letter read:

“ Dear ---:

On Tuesday, January 21st, I had an opinion article published in the Star Tribune. It was titled “Manage labor upheaval with shorter workweek”. The article was targeted primarily to Congress. It went through the history of this issue and ended with several suggestions of what could be done now to reduce work time.

It has been 75 years since the Fair Labor Standards Act, setting a 40-hour standard workweek, was enacted. Labor productivity has increased greatly since this time. And now, productivity increases seem destined to affect sectors of the economy which have previously been immune. The robot revolution is at hand.

Shorter working hours are the logical response to long-term displacement of human labor by machines. This solution worked during the 19th century and the early 20th century. Working hours steadily dropped and wages increased. More recently, hours have been cut in China, Japan, Germany, France, and other places without ill effect. The United States has opted instead for a war economy. The ill effects are now being felt.

I coauthored a book with former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy titled “Nonfinancial Economics: The Case for Shorter Hours of Work” (Praeger, 1989) Sen. McCarthy chaired the Senate Special Committee on Unemployment in 1959. He was familiar with the various policy options. I also have a letter from Sen. Hubert Humphrey expressing support for this approach. In 1979, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan sponsored legislation to cut the workweek to 35 hours. He reintroduced legislation in 1982 to cut it to 32 hours. Conyers wrote a foreword to another book that I published on this subject.

The basic economic relationships have not changed since those days. We need shorter hours not to combat cyclical downturns in the economy but the type of permanent labor displacement by technology that we see today. More education will not save us. College graduates are also facing grim job opportunities. We cannot invent enough new commercial products to require the jobs that people need.

I realize that this approach has fallen outside the mainstream of economic thinking mainly because of academic economists who raise the specter of a “lump-of-labor fallacy” which has never been proven or even clearly defined. Its strongest supporters have been practical people such as Henry Ford. Interested persons can visit my website at http://www.shorterworkweek.com for a number of writings on the subject.

President Obama said in his State of the Union message that he wanted to get the United States off a war economy. It went on such an economy by a 1-2 punch: failure to enact the 30-hour workweek bill passed by the U.S. Senate in 1933 and National Security Council report 68 in 1950 which, inspired by the stimulus of World War II, called for greatly increased military spending for economic as well as national-security reasons. There is a tradeoff between military spending and more leisure time for the American people.

I realize that it would be politically difficult to enact a reduced-hours program in its entirety. Even so, some steps could be taken toward this objective, either by legislation or executive action.

The “Full Monty” would be to enact amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act reducing the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours and perhaps make other changes to increase the effectiveness of the changed standard.

Another step, mentioned in my article, would be to change the overtime threshold salary for FLSA-covered workers from $455 to $970 hour per week, in line with increases in inflation, so that more “managerial” employees are covered by the overtime law.

Finally, it is high time to do a study of the economic effect of reduced work hours. China eliminated Saturday work (and adopted a 40-hour week) for most of its workers by legislative fiat in 1995. Perhaps the International Labor Organization or some other agency could conduct a study to see what actually happened when this step was taken. Perhaps the U.S. Department of Labor could conduct a study. Can Congress make this happen?

In conclusion, labor displacement by machines will continue at a brisk pace into the future. At some point, an intelligent response to this situation will have to be taken. Why not now?

Will you take the lead in having Congress or the Obama administration act on this question of working hours?

Sincerely,

William McGaughey”


The following responses were received:

none so far.

B. The two houses and their owners:

The house at 726 Queen Avenue North in Minneapolis was built in 1908 according to city records. It has five rooms including two bedrooms. The lot size is 5,680 square feet; and the building size, 1,745 square feet.

We know little of the owner in 1931, L.G. Anderson, not even his first name. The current owner is Pedro Chavez, who lives on Minnehaha Avenue in south Minneapolis. He purchased the house in 2007. The building is a rental property.


The house at 1702 Glenwood Avenue North in Minneapolis was built in 1884 although the online city records say it was built in 1900. The house is currently a four-plex. The owner occupies two units and rents out the other two. The lot size is 6,993 square feet; and the building size, 5,296 square feet. It was the original house in this part of the Harrison neighborhood, just west of downtown Minneapolis.

It is unclear who occupied this house in 1931. An elderly woman told the current owner, when he purchased the property in 1992, that the house used to be owned by the wealthy Heffelfinger family and that Model T Fords were parked in the basement when guests arrived at parties. However, the house went through a number of owners.

The Heffelfingers were related to the grain-milling Peavey family of Minneapolis. The Peavey Company, founded by Frank H. Peavey in 1874, was acquired by ConAgra in 1982. Frank Peavey Heffelfinger, born in Minneapolis in 1897, was the son of Frank Totton Heffelfinger and Lucia Louise Peavey, daughter of Frank H. Peavey. Frank Peavey Heffelfinger became executive vice president of the Peavey Company and, in 1953, the finance chair of the Republican National Committee.

It is unclear if any of this branch of the Heffelfinger family lived at 1702 Glenwood Avenue. Other Heffelfingers of note were William Walter “Pudge” Heffelfinger who was a Hennepin County Commissioner, a football star at Yale, and the first professional player in the history of this sport. (He was given $500 to play for the Allegheny football team of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1892.) More recently, lawyer Thomas Heffelfinger was twice U.S. Attorney for Minnesota.

The current owner of the house at 1702 Glenwood Avenue is William McGaughey, who wrote the Star Tribune article and the letter to three members of Congress. He purchased the property in 1992 when it was a HUD house. The copper pipes had been stripped out. McGaughey has lived in the upstairs unit for the past twenty-two years. See Bill McGaughey’s personal web site for more information about him.

 

C. Distances in space and time:

With respect to time, the two sets of letters are separated by eighty three years. The first letter was written a decade before the writer of the second was born. William McGaughey Jr. was born in Detroit in February 1941. In 1931, his mother was a student at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Her father was an Indiana senator, leader of the Democrats in the state senate. William McGaughey’s father, then also a student at DePauw, was forced to drop out for several years when his father, a medical doctor, dropped dead from a heart attack in downtown Indianapolis in 1931. The writer’s father, also named William, became a crime reporter for the Indianapolis Star, who, among other things, covered the funeral of gangster John Dillinger. Both parents later became journalists in New York City - he for the Wall Street Journal and she for the Associated Press. They renewed their acquaintance in New York, got married, and promptly moved to Detroit.

With respect to space, however, the distance separating the houses at 726 Queen Avenue North and 1702 Glenwood Avenue north is only ten blocks. It can be walked in about twenty minutes. William McGaughey will take you on a short tour as he walks this distance, pointing out sites of interest along the way.

D. A walking tour through the neighborhood

The walking tour begins at the corner of Glenwood Avenue and Knox Avenue North. My house at 1702 Glenwood Avenue is set back from Glenwood Avenue on the northwest corner of this intersection.

Now begin walking west on the sidewalk along Glenwood Avenue on the north side of the street. The streets are in alphabetical order: Knox, Logan, Morgan, Newton, Oliver, Penn, Queen. At the corner of Glenwood and Morgan, look across the street and slightly to the left. There, at Skyline Market, is where a picture of me with Senator Al Franken was taken. Even though I had no personal or political relationship with Franken, I did manage to get my picture taken with him. A tenant at my apartment building had told me that Senator Franken was appearing at this neighborhood grocery store, newly acquired by a politically well connected man named Bill English. I took advantage of the photo opportunities at hand.

Note: The woman on the right is my wife Sheila. We were married in the 1990s, divorced, and then remarried several years ago. I am standing to the left in this photograph.

 

Well, anyway, continue walking west on the north side of Glenwood Avenue to the next street, Newton Avenue. Turn right. Now walk three blocks down Newton toward Olson highway. Stop at the frontage road on this side of Olson highway and look across the street. The last house there before the frontage road is 539 Newton Avenue North. This is the house where the international rock star Prince grew up. I received this information from Jean Coste, long-time treasurer of the Harrison Neighborhood Association, who lives in this area and remembers Prince (Rogers Nelson) as a boy.

With remembered echoes of Prince’s music ringing in your ear, turn left and walk west on the frontage road paralleling Olson highway. After another block, the frontage road ends. In front of you is a small park across Oliver Avenue North with a large bronze statue of Governor Floyd B. Olson and several marble benches. A similar statue graces the grounds at the Minnesota state capitol in St. Paul. Floyd B. Olson is, of course, the man to whom L.G. Anderson wrote the letter in 1931. Rest on a bench for several minutes thinking about their correspondence relating to unemployment policies.

You need to cross Olson highway to reach 726 Queen Avenue North. The best place is Penn Avenue North, another block to the west, where there is a traffic light. This is also a sad place. As you walk across Olson, you may recall the fact that a famed athlete collapsed from a heart attack on May 22, 2002, near this intersection as he was driving west on Olson after attending a Minnesota Twins - Texas Rangers baseball game at the Humphrey metrodome. He later died in the hospital. This man was Paul Giel, twice All American on the University of Minnesota football team and runner up for the Heisman trophy in 1953. Giel served as athletic director for the University of Minnesota between 1971 and 1989. He also played professional baseball. I first heard of Paul Giel at summer camp in northern Ontario in 1953.

After crossing Olson, continue straight for another long block to 8th Avenue north. Now turn left and go another block to Queen Avenue north. Turn left again. The house at 726 Queen Avenue north is the second house from the intersection, on the east side of Queen. It is a small white house with concrete steps and an awning in front. This is where the letter writer, L.G. Anderson, lived in 1931. Jon Carlson, a documentary film maker, told me recently that Prince once lived in this neighborhood, too. As I recall, it was near 8th and Russell - one block over.

At any rate, we have now completed our tour.

 

E. About the letter recipients and my association with them:

Governor Floyd B. Olson: Olson was elected Governor of Minnesota in 1930 as candidate of the Farmer-Labor Association which later merged with the Democratic Party to form the current Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party. He grew up in north Minneapolis and attended North High School. Olson also served as Hennepin County Attorney. His most notable act as Governor was to declare martial law and end the 1934 truck drivers' strike in Minneapolis that launched the Teamsters union. Olson’s career was a bit before my time. Even so, his former secretary, Morris Hursh, was commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Public Welfare where I worked for a year in 1965-66. Also, I sat next to one of the 1934 strikers, Jack Maloney, at a Labor Notes conference dinner in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1992.

Congressman Keith Ellison: Ellison came up through the northside DFL political machine, noted for its opposition to "slumlords". In self-defense, I joined a landlord group that initially sued the city. Ellison first came to my attention when some fellow landlords reported that he had made an obscene gesture at them during a street demonstration. After being elected state representative, Keith Ellison tried to mend fences by appearing on the landlord’s cable-television show. As a member of the Independence Party of Minnesota, I supported the IP candidate, Tammy Lee, when Ellison first ran for Congress in 2006. In 2008, I was myself the Independence Party’s candidate for Congress in the 5th district, running against incumbent Ellison and the Republican candidate, Barb Davis White. I received 7 percent of the vote, White received 22 percent, and Ellison 69 percent.

Senator Amy Klobuchar: I struck up a conversation with her in an auditorium at Abbott Northwest Hospital around 1998 when U.S. attorney general Janet Reno came to town. She was then running for Hennepin County Attorney. During her campaign, the landlords invited her on our lively cable-television show; she said this meeting reminded her of political discussions on the Iron Range where her family had once lived. She came back on the show at least one other time. I would run into Klobuchar at odd moments such as the day I announced for President in St. Paul and during a lobbying effort at the state capitol. She was always friendly and ready to talk. What I do not like about Amy Klobuchar is that her office of Hennepin County Attorney successfully prosecuted Jermaine Stansberry, father of my former wife’s two grandsons, for murder even though DNA evidence exonerated him and he had no plausible access to the murder weapon. Courtroom oratory is no substitute for justice. Amy should have known better.

Senator Al Franken: I never followed Saturday Night Live or read any of Franken’s political books although I did attend a taping of his show on Air America before he became a candidate for U.S. Senate with a friend who was an ardent campaign supporter. Mostly, I have souvenirs of Franken: the photograph taken in the convenience store and Franken’s autograph in a copy of Booker T. Washington’s book , Up From Slavery, which I slipped in front of him for a signature because I lacked another sheet of paper. I also snapped photos of Franken’s appearance at the state capitol after the lengthy recount of the 2008 election was completed.

I have no doubt that all three are able politicians. But politics have changed. I see the political process as being more about money and institutional support, less about changing government policies to improve the lives of Americans. So if Senator Paul Wellstone, whom I knew better, wouldn’t stick his neck out to support a shorter workweek because it lacked sufficient institutional support, I doubt if any in the current Congressional delegation will do this either. It depends on how bad things get. I suspect the economy will have to become much, much worse before minds will change. It’s about building constituencies rather than setting good policy.

 

F. Historical notes relating to the shorter-workweek issue:

1. Peg Meier’s book (page 156) also contains a section about a certain John McGaughey - no known relation to me - who lived in the 1880s. He had lost an arm while working as a brakeman on the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul railroad. Unable to work in that position, McGaughey went on to become a labor leader and deputy commissioner of the Minnesota department of labor statistics. He was also active in the Knights of Labor. One of its goals was “To gain some of the benefits of labor-saving machinery by a gradual reduction of the hours of labor to eight per day.”

2. My house at 1702 Glenwood Avenue (then called “Western Avenue”) in Minneapolis was built in 1884. An agreement was signed on February 24, 1886 between city inspector Walter Pardee and a building contractor, B. Cloutier, to make major additions and repairs to this house, with the work to be completed by May 1st of the same year. By coincidence, the climax of the Eight-Hour movement was also on May 1, 1886. Workers across the United States and Canada, including in Minneapolis, on that date conducted a general strike for the eight-hour day. This was the first “May Day”, which became a worldwide labor holiday.

3. L.G. Anderson was not unrealistic in advocating a six-hour day to combat Depression-era unemployment. In April 1933, the U.S. Senate passed a bill introduced by Hugo Black which would have created a thirty-hour workweek. However, the Roosevelt administration would not support it because of opposition from Bernard Baruch, Congressional staffers such as Leon Keyserling, and other influential persons.

4. The last major attempt to enact shorter-workweek legislation with labor support was in late 1979 when Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill (HR-1784) in Congress to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act with respect to the hours standard and overtime rate. I was present at the hearings in the House Education and Labor Committee. I also had an opinion piece supporting this legislation published in the New York Times.

5. A personal highlight for me was to connect with former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy when he came back to Minnesota in 1982 to run in the DFL primary for U.S. Senate. (He lost to Mark Dayton, an heir to Target Corporation, formerly “Dayton Hudson Corporation”, who is the current Minnesota governor.) McCarthy said he had been carrying my New York Times article in his back pocket. I staged a public campaign event for him and kept in touch. We later collaborated in publishing a book, Nonfinancial Economics: The Case for Shorter Hours of Work (Praeger, 1989).

I would run into Senator McCarthy at conferences on shorter work hours organized by Ben Hunnicutt at the University of Iowa or in the basement complex of the United Nations headquarters building in New York, preparing for the 1995 UN Social Summit. With Eugene McCarthy’s passing, we have lost a respected public figure who looked at the facts of an issue more than its politics.

 

G. In Conclusion:

The sad fact is that the cause of shorter working hours has lost the base of institutional support that it once enjoyed from organized labor. Private-sector unions have declined in size, energy, and idealism. Public-sector unions, with strong ties to political administrations, are interested mainly in higher pay and health insurance. The political process itself has become preoccupied with demographic constituencies rather than economic questions.

The academics tout more education - more of their high-priced service - to prepare young people for “jobs of the future”. For the types of people holding the levers of government power, it would be a shame if Americans became addicted to leisure and did not want to work to support the government’s costly projects (war being the main one) so much any more. Even so, it never hurts to ask - and continue asking until the policymakers have run out of other options.

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