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History Lesson - How the 8-Hour Day Was Won

Did you know? In 1890, when the government first tracked workers' hours, the average workweek for full-time manufacturing employees was 100 hours and 102 hours for building tradesmen.

The Roots of the Eight-hour Day Movement

Around the turn of the twentieth century, a popular movement for the eight-hour day in the U.S. rippled from coast to coast. At least fifty years earlier, working Americans were pushing for a ten-hour day standard. But by the 1880s, many Americans called for an even shorter workday of eight-hours.

Groups of laborers across the country, from cobblers and garment cutters to machinists and carpenters, began organizing Knights of Labor assemblies, which called for better working conditions. At this time, there were lingering signs of a general depression in the U.S. caused in part by a stock market crash in 1873 when more than 5,000 businesses bottomed-out. Unemployment and declining wages triggered growing resistance among laborers, according to Jeremy Brecher, author of  Strike!. Many believed that shortening the workday to eight hours would reduce unemployment by spreading work among more people.

In 1886, the Knights of Labor had more than 700,000 members. That year there was also an explosion of strikes nationwide and trade unionists took up shorter working hours as yet another demand. Out of both of these growing movements, interest in a national general strike for the eight-hour day grew.

May Day Strike and Mayhem

"Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will."

--A slogan of the Eight-hour Day movement.

May 1, 1886, was the deadline that unions and other worker organizations set for a national general strike. A number of eight-hour strikes broke out ahead of time with almost a quarter of a million people participating nationwide. The heart and the height of the turn-of-the-century eight-hour movement was in Chicago, where thousands had already won reduced hours. On May 1, 10,000 people struck in Chicago in a peaceful action. But tensions between law enforcement and demonstrators escalated as the strikes continued in the following days. At one May 3rd action, where unionists attacked men who had crossed the picket line in a local labor dispute, police opened fire, killing four demonstrators. Outrage over the killings triggered about 1,000 people to take to the streets that night. That demonstration, remembered as the Haymarket Square Rally, also ended in bloodshed.

Haymarket Square Rally

Just as the last speaker of the Haymarket rally concluded his speech, a dynamite bomb exploded among nearby police ranks, killing one officer. Almost immediately, the police force began opening fire on the crowd. One demonstrator died and many others were wounded. Eight agitators were arrested for the bombing and tried in an atmosphere of hysteria. Four of them eventually were hanged, though there was virtually no evidence connecting them to the bombing.

Sources:

Brecher, J. Strike!. South End Press Classics, 1997.

Whaples, R. "Winning the Eight-hour Day, 1909-1919." The Journal of Economic History, Vol. L, No. 2, June 1990.

Foner, P. May Day: A short history of the international workers' holiday. International Publishers, 1986.

By Kelly Whalen

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