Written by Callie Vandewiele
It’s a familiar routine: Walking into work, stowing your coat near your desk or in the break room. Nabbing a cup of coffee and then wandering down the hall or across the floor.
You clock in, and start counting down. Two hours until your breather. Three hours, 59 minutes to lunch. Just under eight and a half hours until you are headed home — or into overtime.
Minimum wage or contracted double digits. It’s all the same, whether you work in a berry field, a high rise or a school. The American norm has become “working 9 to 5, five days a week.” Of course, not all our work schedules are so neat and tidy, but with Labor Day weekend coming up, it’s good to remember that American work weeks have not always had that standard.
At the height of the industrial revolution, entire families worked in factories. Men, women and their children were pulling 16-hour days six — and sometimes seven — days a week. Working conditions were brutal. Employees could be fired for getting sick or hurt. Wages were far below poverty level and families often went hungry, even with every member who could walk working.
It was in the 1790s, following in the tradition of Welsh Socialist reformer Robert Owen, that a group of carpenters in Philadelphia went on strike. Their demand? A work day that lasted from “6 to 6” and included two breaks for meals.
In the 1830s, the first general strike ever organized in the United States of America was headed by the Irish coal heavers, demanding a 10-hour work day. By the 1860s, the Chicago labor movement — one of the strongest in the nation — took up the cry, demanding an eight-hour work day and organizing protests and strikes throughout Illinois.
Their campaign was so successful that in 1869 President Grant signed the National Eight Hour Law Proclamation, a mostly symbolic gesture in support of the labor movement and its members.
On May 1, labor activist and Socialist party leader Albert Parsons led more than 80,000 marchers through Chicago on the first May Day Parade, all of them demanding a shorter workday and work breaks. Two years later, in 1886, the McCormick Plant Workers in Chicago went on strike, and on May 3 of that year, four union members were killed by police as they counter-protested the arrival of strike-breakers.
By 1890, the American Federation of Labor and the International Workingmen’s Association had agreed on an annual parade on May Day to recognize and support the efforts of union members and strikers across the world seeking to protect employee rights. By 1900, workers across the nation and across the trades had won the right to an eight-hour workday. In 1914, the Ford Motor Company reduced its shifts to eight hours and saw its profit margin double in two years as a result of the rising productivity of workers.
By mid-1915, in the shadow of World War I, strikers across the northeastern United States had brought the issue to national attention, and in 1916, Congress finally acted. The United States Adamson Act established an eight-hour workday for railroad workers, and included provisions for overtime pay, thus laying the groundwork for the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937 — the standard to which every person who has ever worked an hourly job in the United States owes their 40-hour work week, standardized lunches and mandatory breaks.
As you pack up to head out on Labor Day, or get set to work a long holiday weekend, take some time to remember that the fight for the eight-hour workday spanned almost 150 years — and at points was violent and cost workers their lives. It sometimes seems impossible to imagine, but it’s a right for which American workers fought long and hard.
So enjoy that Labor Day picnic, and remember how important it is to protect hard-won rights that, more often than not, we simply take for granted.