Eight Hours for What We Will!

Unions: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend

That phrase by far, remains one of the most popular modern slogans created by the union movement:

No surprise. We all love weekends. But getting the weekend meant winning the right to an eight-hour day—and that took decades to win, with much blood lost and many deaths along the way.

Known as the “father” of the eight-hour day, Ira Steward, a Boston machinist, in 1863 inspired the National Union of Machinists and Blacksmiths to pass a resolution saying

From East to West, from North to South, the most important change to us as working men…is a permanent reduction to eight of the hours exacted for each day’s work.

At the time, the overwhelming majority still worked 10 or 12 hours a day, six, and sometimes seven, days a week. Some employers still posted notices warning their workers, “If you don’t come in Sunday, don’t come in Monday.”

But the best-known effort for the eight-hour day is tied up in the tragic Haymarket Square event. Workers held the May 4, 1886, Haymarket rally to peacefully protest the deaths of three strikers shot and killed by police at a massive May Day (May 1) general strike for the eight-hour day.

The Haymarket event turned into disaster when a bomb went off in the crowd. Several officers were killed and police firing on those in the square then killed dozens of innocent protesters. [Like much about Haymarket, the numbers of dead and wounded still are up for scholarly debate. For instance, the spring 2006 issue of the Labor & Working-Class History Association publication (subscription required) carries forth an ongoing discussion on whether the bomb thrown at Haymarket was an isolated act or a larger conspiracy as prosecutors asserted when they sentenced five men to death for the act.]

Nationwide, calls for an eight-hour day had begun in August 1866, when the newly organized National Labor Union called on Congress to mandate an eight-hour workday. A coalition of skilled and unskilled workers, farmers and reformers, the National Labor Union was created to pressure Congress to enact labor reforms. It dissolved in 1873 after a disappointing venture into third-party politics in the 1872 presidential election.

By the 1880s, two new national labor organizations, the Knights of Labor and the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (FOTLU) were agitating for the eight-hour day. The Knights of Labor, a nationwide association of skilled and unskilled workers, rural workers and small business owners had advised legislative action to shorten the workday. The much smaller FOTLU—which in 1886 became the American Federation of Labor—called for a general strike to force employers to accept eight hours of work. On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers voted with their feet for the general strike, singing the most popular slogan of their day:

Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,

Eight hours for what we will!

At that time, most people worked, at minimum, 10 hours per day and historians have mixed views on how it happened that a movement developed for an eight-hour day, rather than a nine-hour day. Could be it came about as do many bargaining strategies: Ask for more than you think you likely will get and leave room for negotiation. If you asked for a nine-hour day, you might not get any improvement. Asking for an eight-hour day left room for negotiation—and the possibility of achieving a shortened workweek.

Haymarket proved a turning point: The event quashed the burgeoning nationwide effort for the eight-hour day and helped shape the future of the modern union movement. Six Philadelphia garment cutters had formed the Knights in 1869, which by the 1880s included a diverse membership of more than 700,000 workers. At the national level, the Knights argued for government action to secure full employment and built an alternative network of social institutions, reading rooms, bands, parades and even its own court system. Meanwhile, in 1886, a mix of Knights members and FOTLU members formed a new national organization—the American Federation of Labor. They chose, as the AFL’s first president, Samuel Gompers of the Cigar Makers, who would serve in that capacity for all but one of the next 38 years (John McBride of the Mine Workers presided over the federation from 1894 to 1895).

While much labor history has focused on the distinctions between the Knights of Labor—with its alliances among all workers—and the AFL’s emphasis on advancing the interests of skilled craftsworkers, historian Kim Voss argues the Knights’ rapid decline after Haymarket occurred not so much from the rivalry between skilled and nonskilled workers within the Knights, but because Haymarket enabled employers to unite against workers as never before.

…the mobilization of employer opposition, especially against skilled craft workers who maintained their allegiance to the Knights in the hostile years following the Haymarket bombing, was the most important reason for the decline of the Knights. Workers’ response to this opposition, and the lessons they drew from their failure to triumph over it, in turn, helped to discredit broad-based political unionism as a model for labor movement development in the United States.

The Haymarket tragedy was followed by the 1892 Homestead strike and the 1894 Pullman Railroad strike, pivotal events in which employers wielded massive blows against workers and helped shape an American union movement that, unlike those in some European countries, moved away from national political action as the means by which to address the plight of workers.

After Haymarket, workers and their unions fought for the eight-hour day job site by job site, industry by industry, and state by state. The eight-hour day finally became a national reality in 1938, when the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act made it a legal day’s work throughout the nation.

by Tula Connell, Sep 1, 2006

[Many thanks to historian James Green.]

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