Sinlung /
03 September 2013

Why Do We Work Eight Hours a Day?

A steel worker cutting with a blow torch.
In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated the first Monday of September to honor the contributions workers have made to the country. To mark the occasion, Americans close their office doors to head to the beach, fire up the barbecue and shop for bargains.

For many countries in the rest of the world, however, May 1, better known as May Day or International Workers' Day, is the annual holiday to celebrate the labor movement. Because of its significance, May Day has become an occasion not only of international celebration, but also widespread protest, entirely fitting given that the first May Day was sparked by a labor demonstration. And although the holiday today isn't well recognized within the United States, May Day is in fact of American origin and came out of the struggle to get workers the right to an eight-hour workday.

In August 1866, the newly constituted National Labor Union urged Congress to pass a law mandating the eight-hour workday. The group's efforts fell short on the national level (and the National Labor Union eventually dissolved some seven years later), but the message trickled down to the states.
In 1867, the Illinois Legislature passed a law mandating an eight-hour workday. The legislation may have been intended to hand a victory to workers, but employers simply refused to cooperate.
On May 1, 1867, a citywide strike in Chicago devolved into bedlam as police clashed with demonstrators. Police suppressed the strikers with force, effectively allowing private employers to continue skirting state law.

In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant issued a proclamation that guaranteed both a stable wage and an eight-hour workday, but it only applied to government employees. Workers in private enterprise hoped they could get the same legal guarantees in a national law.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the eight-hour workday became a key demand of labor unions across the country. The National Labor Union had dissolved, but in its place rose other groups, such as the Knights of Labor and later the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (the precursor to today's American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL–CIO). May 1 also became an annual day in which to organize strikes and hold demonstrations in support of the movement. As workers' demands were continuously rebuffed, calls came for an armed uprising.

In 1886, labor unions called for a national strike for a shorter workday, a call which drew over 300,000 workers to demonstrate in support on May 1. In Chicago, strikes turned to violent conflict between workers, a mix of anarchists and socialists, and strikebreakers in the Haymarket area between May 3 and 4. In the aftermath of the violence, labor leaders associated with the local movement were round up, tried and executed.

What would become known as the Haymarket massacre served to both galvanize the movement among its supporters as well as weaken labor in the view of the public, who had seen its violent side, one of the reasons why Americans commemorate the labor movement in September instead.
In 1890, the government for the first time began tracking the number of hours workers put in every week. That year, full-time manufacturing employees worked an average of 100 hours a week and building tradesmen were on the job an average 102 hours. Even if the labor movement had gotten louder and more aggressive with its demands, little had changed in terms of workers' conditions.

For the rest of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, labor groups won the right to an eight-hour workday typically on a local level or across an industry group. In 1916, railroad workers won the right to an eight-hour workday and overtime pay with the passage of the Adamson Act. Decades later, the National Industrial Recovery Act, enacted to combat the Great Depression and later replaced with the Wagner Act, provided for the establishment of maximum workweeks and minimum wages. Still, it wasn't until the 1950s that most Americans actually achieved the eight-hour workday.


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