By Gunther W. Anderson
UFCW Local 617
Nearly every union member in the U.S. is aware that the efforts of organized labor are what brought workers all over the country, whether union or non-union, certain working standards that are generally taken for granted today. Really basic things like the eight-hour workday, weekends, and paid holidays had to be fought for by organized workers of the past. We know that unions gave us these things, and we often use that fact as a way to encourage a pro-union mindset within our communities and across the country. But how many of us, when pressed for details, could actually explain how or when unions fought for and won us these standards of employment? In this article, I aim to give a brief summary of what it took to make the eight-hour workday a standard of employment in the U.S.
As I’m sure you would imagine, there were many protests, rallies, demonstrations, and strikes with the aim of a shorter workday. One of the earliest strikes for the cause goes all the way back to 1791, when carpenters from Philadelphia refused to work unless their employers granted them a ten-hour work day. According to the AFL-CIO’s Labor History Timeline, their strike was successful and their demand met. From that point on through the first third of the 19th century, the focus was mostly on achieving a ten-hour day as the standard. The idea of an eight-hour day became more prevalent in the 1830’s, with carpenters from Boston gaining this standard for themselves in 1842, but it wasn’t for 20 more years that the movement really gained considerable momentum across the entire nation.
Ira Steward, a member of the Machinists’ and Blacksmiths’ Union in Boston, Massachusetts, is credited as having done more than any other individual for the eight-hour workday movement. He helped found the Grand Eight Hour League which spread from his hometown to cities all over the United States. It gained the support of a few politicians which gave the league a state-wide presence in some areas, leading to state laws mandating an eight-hour work day in Connecticut, Illinois, and New York. However, these early laws were so filled with exceptions and loopholes that they were virtually impossible to enforce. But it was a huge step in the right direction.
In 1884, the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions, the organization that would soon become what we know today as the American Federation of Labor, announced its intention to make May 1st, 1886 the date on which the eight-hour workday would become the national standard. On that day, rallies and demonstrations began all over the country and continued for days afterward. Three days later, on May 4th, tragedy struck and lives were lost. In Haymarket Square in Chicago police arrived to break up the labor rally being held there. A bomb was thrown into their path and seven officers were killed. The remaining police force returned fire as the demonstrators fled from the blast and the bullets, and within minutes the square was empty save for the dead and wounded. A trial was held but it was largely deemed to have been a miscarriage of justice. Four men were executed and one committed suicide the night before he was to be hung. After many lengthy appeals, the remaining men tried for the bombing were granted full pardons in 1893 by the Governor of Illinois.
For decades afterward, with organized labor’s ongoing efforts, eight-hour days continued to spread slowly but surely throughout the country, becoming more and more common until finally, as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 initially establishing a 44-hour work week as federal law, with overtime to be paid for any additional hours worked. Amendments and changes to this law have since been made, of course, and every employee in the United States now enjoys the hard won, union-earned benefits of a 40-hour standard work week.