That was the motto for the Eight-Hour Movement, chanted in labor demonstrations and union halls far and wide in the latter part of the 1800s. The fight for the eight hour day was a long one, originating with the onset of the Industrial Revolution itself (first in the form of the ten-hour day, with two hours for meals). In the earlier part of the nineteenth century, the fight was primarily through pressure on state legislatures to limit the hours of the workday; the existing trade unions tended to have a narrow focus on their own crafts, and their power rose and fell with the economic tide (as did their level of solidarity with other crafts in the form of labor councils). Legislatures were reluctant to hear arguments in favor of working hours on a human scale; it was felt that “the remedy is not with us” (as a Massachusetts legislative committee formed in response to the many petitions received from factory workers replied) and/or that limiting the hours of the workday would be bad for the economy. Workers shifted their arguments from more time for citizenship duties or further education, to the better quality of work that would result from the shorter workday. By the time the mid-1800’s rolled around, several states (New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Ohio, California and Georgia) had passed various ten-hour laws due to popular demand—laws which inevitably included loopholes for ‘special contracts’. Those ‘special contracts’ nullified the law; employers demanded them as a condition of employment, and blacklisted workers who stood up for their (paper-tiger) legal rights.
The general ineffectiveness of those laws spurred more interest in forming labor organizations—not the relatively smaller, city-based craft brotherhoods that occasionally would assert political power, but larger, regional unions that were politically driven. Those unions were also craft-based, and concerned primarily with the welfare of their own members (as well as control of their jurisdiction), but the seeds had been planted for national labor unions, and there was a renewed interest in forming trades’ councils and solidarity with other unions. This intensified with the rise of the railroads, when economies were no longer so “local”.
The eight-hour day was a key issue to the Chicago labor movement, who galvanized enough support that a state law was passed in favor of the eight hour day in 1867. As in other states, those canny Illinois politicians wrote enough loopholes in the law as to render it ineffective, so on May 1, 1867, the first general strike in Chicago in support of the eight-hour day was held. (It was only two years before, on May 1, 1865, that Abraham Lincoln’s body was displayed in Chicago for public mourning. A favorite Abraham Lincoln quote on labor hangs proudly on the wall of my union hall: “Labor is prior to, and independent of Capital, which would never have been created without labor’s first existing. Labor is the superior of Capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”)
The fight continued into the late 1800s, with most unions and trade coalitions demanding the eight-hour day. May 1, 1886 was set as the day for nationwide demonstrations for the eight-hour day by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (precursor to the American Federation of Labor). In Chicago, this demonstration was not merely for the eight-hour day or other jobsite conditions, but was also a show of strength by various immigrant communities. When a bomb went off in Haymarket Square, eight labor leaders were arrested (none of whom could have set off the bomb), tried, and sentenced to death. Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel were hanged, Louis Lingg killed himself on the eve of execution; Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden and Oscar Neebe remained in prison (and were later pardoned by Governor Altweld). It wasn’t until the New Deal with its Fair Labor Standards Act that the eight hour day became standard.
…or has it?
For the past two decades the eight-hour day has been little more than a footnote in the history books; the recent downturn in the average number of weekly hours worked in the U.S. can be attributed to rising unemployment. What happened?
Overtime pay was designed to penalize employers for not hiring more workers. But as the number of workers organized into labor unions fell, fewer workplaces paid double time—overtime fell back into time-and-a-half. Industries also adopted the practice of reclassifying workers as “associates” or “managers” in order to opt-out of paying overtime. The illegal practice of “working off the clock” (being required to work without pay as a condition of employment) has made a comeback. And the skyrocketing cost of health care benefits (for workplaces that provide them) has made overtime a cheaper alternative to hiring more employees. Introduction of the four-day, ten-hour work week in many industries (including construction), or of the three-day, twelve-hour week (especially in health care) has further eroded the eight-hour day; “4-10s” are likely to be in more demand due to the rising cost of gasoline (the state of Utah has instituted the four-day work week for most state employees). It should probably go without saying that displaced workers often work two jobs to replace the wages lost from their former employment.
As during other periods of recession, the response of organized labor to the erosion of the eight-hour day has taken a back seat to keeping employment—fighting for the tenuous hold on existing jobs and making concessions (such as 4-10s) in exchange for fewer layoffs, or cost-of-living increases in new contracts. The relatively low number of organized workers (about 7.8% of private sector workers, 12.5% of all workers—the lowest rate of organization of any industrialized nation) keep labor from asserting any power at the bargaining table or in the voting booth. Although there is a renewed interest in organizing the unorganized, there is no overt mention of the eight-hour day as a focal point; increased wages, health care and pension benefits, economic security and workplace safety override work hours as a concern. Ever since the abandonment of the PATCO workers, it’s been triage time for the U.S. labor movement.*
Jobsite hours aren’t a back burner issue for women workers, according to the 2008 “Ask a Working Woman” survey from the AFL-CIO. Faced with the demands of the second shift, working women—organized or not—can little afford to ignore the impact of increased daily work hours in our lives. The Take Back Your Time movement, not being affiliated with any labor organization and thus not subject to any labor laws, is not so silent on the matter.
What about you? On this Labor Day, moved to the safety of September from its original May 1 so as to placate the gods of historical amnesia, do you feel the pressure to work extra hours to avoid the layoff list? Do you have family members or friends who have lost their jobs because they couldn’t or wouldn’t work overtime? Is your workplace understaffed? Do you take work home? Come in early or stay late? Work off the clock? Do you need to work more than forty hours in order to make ends meet? How does this affect you, physically and/or mentally? How does this affect your family or other relationships? Do you even have time for other relationships?
*That’s the assessment of virtually all the old-school labor union folk I know, myself included. It’s a common feeling amongst the rank-and-file old enough to remember the incident. PATCO was a watershed. When the Reagan administration suffered no consequence for the firing of the PATCO workers—no general strike, no mass demonstrations—they knew solidarity was dead and acted accordingly. This is disputed by some people of course, as PATCO was not affiliated.
Similar Posts (automatically generated):
- Myths About Labor Unions: Capitalist Salvos in the Class War by La Lubu September 4, 2008
- New York Domestic Workers Fight to Pass Bill of Rights by Cara April 12, 2010
- It’s Cold & Flu Season….Do You Have Paid Sick Days? by La Lubu September 17, 2009
- Crystal Lee Sutton: Labor Heroine by La Lubu September 14, 2009
- Will the Last One Out of ***** Please Shut Out the Lights?! by La Lubu September 15, 2009