Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will!

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.

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25 comments for “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will!

  1. denelian
    September 2, 2008 at 12:11 am

    my dad trys to get more overtime. but he’s a workaholic.

    unfortunatly, my boyfriend is a manager, so has UNPAID overtime. fuckers…

  2. unionmaid33
    September 2, 2008 at 1:54 am

    Thank you for this post! I think may people are unaware of the real labor day and what it stands for. thanks again!

  3. Dr. Confused
    September 2, 2008 at 4:51 am

    I just started a new academic job.

    My contract says I will work “the number of hours necessary to accomplish the requirements of the post.” This is understood to mean 50-60 hours a week, minimum.

    I have an 8-month-old baby. I’m still nursing her.

    It’s pretty much impossible to succeed in academia without working huge numbers of hours. I’m really not sure it’s worth it.

  4. UnFit
    September 2, 2008 at 5:20 am

    Uh, yea, in my last job had a contract with that clause, Dr. Confused.
    And I was working for a company that was invariably voted one of the best 100 to work for!

  5. Kat
    September 2, 2008 at 8:06 am

    I work as a technical editor. Currently, I am hourly and receive overtime pay if I work past 40 hours. Although I am full-time, permanent, my work hours must be billed to projects. If I cannot justify billing my hours to project work, then I must bill them to the overhead budget. No one will tell you that you can’t do that. BUT… if my percentage of O/H is too high, my job performance is considered to be substandard and I am reprimanded.

    In order to make sure I have at least 40 hours of work, I don’t turn any offer of work down. Which means I usually end up with OT. With two kids and a long commute, I’m not thrilled about this, but I do get compensated so its a trade-off.

    At least, I did.

    The company is in the process of restructuring the job titles and descriptions. Good news for us editors, they told us. We’d finally get to be considered “professionals!!” Yay!!!

    Uh… except, by the way, professionals don’t get OT. So, I’m on my way to a big pay cut come the beginning of the year.

    In the meantime, my husband, who drives a delivery truck, has been put on 4-10s. Sure, its nice he has Friday’s off, but the M-Th bit is really wearing him down. Its fairly labor intensitve loading and unloading of lumber stacks. He’s exhausted by the time he gets home.

  6. September 2, 2008 at 8:25 am

    I work in one of the two industries the 8 hour day does not apply to, by law: truck driving. The other is farming.

    Most truckers work 70 hours in 8 days. I’m fortunate, I work between 45-50 hours in 5 days, get a full weekend and am home every night.

    It’s exhausting. I spend most of Sunday sleeping.

  7. Sailorman
    September 2, 2008 at 8:31 am

    As it happens, many folks I know *want* to work OT, so long as they get time and a half. That extra 50% of pay add up fast; I loved it when I used to work hourly.

    But obviously not everyone can do it.

    I don’t know anyone who was fired for refusing to work OT. I know plenty of people who were fired because (practically speaking) they didn’t work enough hours in their “OT exempt” position.

    A huge issue for many folks in my area is the improper classification of their job as a salaried position. This lets the company escape paying them overtime, because they are no longer paid by the hour. The rules for who can be made exempt are decent though not great, but are routinely violated by employers.

  8. Nia
    September 2, 2008 at 8:34 am

    A foreign point of view: we have a big problem with working hours in Spain. It’s triple: first, the tradition of the “broken shift”: working morning and afternoon (for example, 9-2, 5-8, a very common schedule for shops). Broken shifts made sense when men came back home to eat a cooked lunch, made by their stay-at-home wives. In Spain, lunch is the heaviest meal in the day. But now, women work and everyone commutes, so a two-hour lunch break is a problem, and an excuse for getting work done for free during your lunch hour. Employers dislike employees who want a half-hour for lunch in order to leave 90 minutes earlier; they see that as lack of interest.

    The second problem is that employers expect people to show their commitment, not by getting more work done but staying until later and later.

    Finally, the fact that higher education is nearly free has also given us a surplus of very young, very qualified professionals willing to work any hours for any salary. We even have the word “Mileurista” “Thousander”, to refer to young people working full-time in a qualified profession… to make 1,000 euros a month or less. I don’t know how that translates in USA earning power, but the average rent or mortgage is 600 E a month and gas is 4,50 a gallon. For someone making 800 a month, paid overtime is seen as a special favour!

  9. September 2, 2008 at 8:53 am

    Nia, it’s hard to translate to general earning power in the U.S., as there’s so much regional disparity—-but the income you described is fairly typical where I live (central Illinois) and throughout much of the midwest/rust belt. Barely enough to make ends meet.

  10. dananddanica
    September 2, 2008 at 9:19 am

    i havent read anything on it yet but I think it would be interesting to see a study on if a an 8 hour workday is possible in a country of 300 million and especially if we can achieve a lot of the progressive ideals a lot of us want. Subsidized childcare, paid parental leave and a million other things all cost resources and we still must compete with other large economies, comparing us to sweden doesnt really work in an economic sense though it might work with Germany. I just think it would be interesting, might result in all who are able only having to work 6 hours a day to provide the social benefits we’d like to see, of course it might work out to 11 hours.

    as far as the second shift goes, its still a shitty deal but seems to have improved a lot based on the latest gov’t time use studies ive read, i have no idea how they measure these things but on paper men on average work enough hours to nearly completely compensate for the hours women spend on housework, I believe work/work at home combined for men was a very very little amount smaller than women. I think the time for an 8 hour 5/2 workweek has passed anyway.

  11. September 2, 2008 at 9:31 am

    I came very, very close to coming unhinged when I was on a six-month residency providing 24-hour, 7-day cover with only two residents (OBGYN). Sure, we could “take sick leave if we needed to”, but there was no relief cover immediately available; taking sick leave when sick meant that the other resident was suddenly on 24-hour, 7-day cover all by themself. It was a bloody disaster area.

  12. human
    September 2, 2008 at 10:17 am

    I was temping on September 11th, 2001, and on September 13th my assignment was abruptly ended. And there were no more temp jobs to be had. So after a few weeks of increasingly desperate searching for income, I went to work as a bicycle courier. You know, the folks who carry your envelopes to that other office across town. Did you know they make bicycle couriers go through narrow garbage filled loading docks intended for trucks? Whose, by the way, aren’t well equipped to see bikes when they are backing their big ass truck up.

    Couriers are classified – incorrectly – as “independent contractors” which means technically that you don’t have to go to work on any given day. It also means that you don’t get paid for your time, but per delivery, so if you don’t work the hours your dispatcher damn well wants you to work, you get punished by not being assigned enough deliveries to make ends meet. Once an especially assholish dispatcher kept me on the radio for 14 hours, during which I got a grand total of 3 delivery jobs.

    I did not come into contact with labor union culture until later in life and it has always seemed unfamiliar and foreign to me. I don’t say that as a criticism. It’s just that I find it impossible to imagine having a co-worker who would go all out for me. And I’ve thought about the whole issue of picket lines and would I cross and what if it meant losing my job. And it’s hard to conceive of paying that price when there has never been anyone who would do the same for me.

    It seems like for most people solidarity isn’t even a value; it’s foreign to their system of values. You saw this in Louisiana after Katrina when people were fighting amongst themselves – the people who had flood insurance were mad at the people who didn’t have flood insurance who got assistance from the government. And the people who didn’t have flood insurance were pissed because generally it was because they couldn’t get it (land too low) or couldn’t afford it, and they figured the insured needed to get off their high horse. And there they were sniping at each other instead of standing shoulder to shoulder and demanding the human treatment they all deserved and none of them got, insurance or no.

    If solidarity was a commonly held value, that would have all gone down very differently. A lot would be different. I don’t know how to make that happen though. I wish I did.

  13. September 2, 2008 at 10:17 am

    I work in a call center in a company that was just taken over by a bigger company. We’ve always been understaffed at our office, but it became especially nasty during the takeover. All management associated with our department ran for the hills, leaving the rest of us to manage ourselves. The company dragged its feet to hire more management, leaving us to work 10-11 hour days with customers screaming at us because we were without the authority to do much of our jobs. I developed health problems, as did some of my coworkers. Other employees took FMLA time off because the stress was so bad. Months and months went by, half of us were looking for other jobs, totally unsuccessfully in the shitty job market. The overtime was nice for awhile, but after taxes it didn’t make much sense to work more than 10-12 hours overtime a paycheck before we were getting paid less for that time than we were paying the government for the privilege of working those hours. And yes, people were fired on site for rightly complaining about the short-notice, high-volume, extended overtime. At first we were all in it together, then we sort of turned on each other. We were ready to chew one another’s faces off.

    I’m still looking for a viable way out, as are many of my coworkers. But most of us are single women of color with children, some are married to men with similar low-wage positions. Almost no one is college educated. You can’t even get the time off to go to a job interview, but you can’t quit your job without losing your benefits, with no guarantees that you’ll even find a job to replace this one. It feels like a fucking trap. I’ve pissed off a lot of my friends and family members because I don’t keep in touch with them like I used to, plus I’m never available on holidays because we work them. Or we’re only off for that one day, say, Christmas day, Thanksgiving day. Our kids are sitting at home without their parents on holidays so we can answer calls from a pissed off customer screaming at us because we’re paid to apologize.

  14. roses
    September 2, 2008 at 11:48 am

    Introduction of the four-day, ten-hour work week in many industries (including construction)

    Oh, I wish. I work in construction (as a field engineer) and we work five days, 10 hours. And it sucks. I have no energy or time at the end of the day (if I want to get 8 hours of sleep and not be completely exhausted the next day). And I don’t get an extra day off to show for it. I do get compensated, at straight time (as an engineer I’m not eligible for overtime so I’m basically lucky to be getting anything at all… I know lots of engineers who are officially on 40 hours and salary but usually work 50 or so for no extra money). I think construction workers and tradespeople get time and a half for the extra 10 hours and maybe double time if they work more than that. And some of them would rather have the money than the time – lots of young men come up here (Alberta oil sands) from other provinces, work as much as they can and make as much money as they can before moving back home to start a family. But there are also lots of people who have families here and no doubt would appreciate more time off. (Of course, cost of living here is so high that they might not be able to take that option even if they had it).

  15. September 2, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    I just started a new academic job.

    My contract says I will work “the number of hours necessary to accomplish the requirements of the post.” This is understood to mean 50-60 hours a week, minimum.

    The administration at my father’s university came up with the bright idea to get 100% compliance on their new timeclock system, which included professors in this case, to verify that everyone was working the full number of hours they were contractually required to. The professors all signed a letter to the administration which basically said “If you take this incredibly insulting step, we’ll follow it to the letter, which means research and teaching productivity will be cut by about two-thirds.” The plan was dropped, but I have the feeling a lot of the professors kind of wish they’d kept it in place.

    Sure, the publication rate would drop to zero, but at least they’d have time to themselves.

  16. Broce
    September 2, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    Im a systems engineer, working on salary. I handle oncall weeks where it’s 24 x 7, and I’m *always*, 365 days a year, on call 24 X 7 if anything goes wrong with the automations.

    We average about 70 hours a week for which we are paid for 40. And that’s every week. This year, we were told a 2.5% raise was quite good. We’ve lost 3 people on the team this year, and they havent been replaced. We’ve had 5 people out on medical leave, and their work fell to the rest of us. Most of us are in the 45-60 age range, and many of us have developed stress related health problems because of the constant high wire act.

    It’s expected that we’ll put in these hours. There’s no such thing as “sorry, I can’t” or “I’m busy that weekend” or “Working 2-8 am on a Sunday morning really screws the whole weekend up.” That last one Ive been doing every week for a couple of months, btw, and will continue to do until at least mid October. That means no doing anything Saturday night, because you’ll have to work, and no doing anything Sunday but trying to catch up on some sleep.

    Eight hour day? What’s that?

  17. Puppycat
    September 2, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    I just got fired for “lack of interest” which is code for not working as much unpaid overtime as my boss wanted me to, and expressing a desire to keep accurate hours instead of just writing 9-5 on the timesheets like the person who had my job before me did, all the while working tons of unpaid hours. It was a union job, but I was a fairly new employee, and so they didn’t need to have cause to fire me.

  18. LaborUnionStaff
    September 2, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    I am on staff at a labor union- one of the big ones. I’ve had months where I’ve worked 30 days straight. I now have a staff union and a contract that supposedly protects me from excessive work by guaranteeing weekends, but I’m only guaranteed two weekends a month. (Or four days off a month). There’s no limit to the hours I can be required to work in a day. It makes sense in theory, because during campaigns we have to do what we have to do, but there is definitely a culture of overwork and burnout here for the staff. I’ve been exhausted to the point of being ill. I think the American labor movement would be stronger and more effective if the people working on labor union staff weren’t being overworked themselves.

  19. caffeine
    September 2, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    This conversation between some of my coworkers seems to sum up how most of the business world seems to view it these days:

    Employee 1: Well, he /is/ one of those 40-hour-a-week-ers.
    Employee 2: Oh, one of those.
    Employee 3: I would never have guessed.

  20. Macko
    September 3, 2008 at 12:28 am

    “Nyolc óra munka,
    nyolc óra pihenés,
    nyolc óra szórakozás”

    This song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OpOpwSUw_hM&feature=related

    was popular in Hungary when I still lived there. Its refrain translates to the title of this post. The song contrasts the irony of this workers’ slogan against the reality of life in Hungary under the Communist regime

    But I write this from my second job (that is the job I go to when I knock off after eight hours at my day job). Capitalism sucks, too.

  21. Ashley
    September 3, 2008 at 12:32 am

    I’ve seen some of this “only clock 40 hours a week” thing, but what’s personally effected me more was a total lack of breaks. It seems to be endemic to food service, but pizza in particular. As a manager I was responsible for the store at all times I was in there, and there was absolutely no relief. Thus, I only rarely got a break. Our franchise was so mismanaged that I’ve worked 10 hour shifts with a cumulative 5 minutes “break” including 30 second potty breaks. If my district manager, an otherwise decent guy, caught me “not working” (eating, taking a break) he’d yell at me.

    One situation in particular sticks in my mind. I was working an open-dinner rush shift, where most of the day I was by myself. We had a huge rush with a totally incompetent driver, and the computers broke down. The OWNER of the franchise came in, saw I was swamped, and decided to order his own pizza from a different store, but didn’t help me in the slightest. It was constant stress at every moment, and felt like a 10 hour long anxiety attack. About 2 in the afternoon (keep in mind I’d been working since 9 a.m.) we had a lull, so I took out my lunch, opened a book, and tried to get a break. At that moment my district manager walked in and was aghast! that I was “reading a whole book” while working. Of course I got up right away and went back to work folding boxes or something stupid like that. That day was 14 hours of constant stress with no more than 10 minutes of not working, bathroom included.

    The sad thing is I didn’t quit for another year.

    The sadder thing is I thought this was “normal” for a long time.

    The saddest thing is I still expect it, and I feel like an abused child with regards to work.

  22. jess
    September 3, 2008 at 2:52 am

    I worked as an ‘independent contractor’ too, for 16 weeks. Worked out to about $2/hr. Australian.
    We work crazy hours here – especially teaching staff: child care, kindergarten – which is like childcare but with a degree and better pay -, high school and tertiary in particular. You get there two hours before, you leave two hours after, you don’t have a lunchbreak, and you do a shitload of homework and ‘extra’ e.g. committee/professional development, standard. My thesis supervisor (honours) not only is head of the department, lecturer, and expected to publish, but he supervises about 30 phd/masters (i’m the only hons). How the eff he does his job without some kind of time machine, I have no idea.

  23. September 3, 2008 at 3:47 am

    ykno, if i had just read this post before the bloomington one, i could have not made an ass of myself with my bragging about the haymarket riot. i like you.

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