On May Day, thank unions for your eight-hour shift
MOST AMERICAN WORKING men and women will put in just eight hours on the job
on May Day - Monday, May 1. That will leave them enough time to enjoy some
of the leisure activities associated with what has been a traditional
springtime festival day for centuries.
Today's workers may not realize it, but if it weren't for a crusade waged
by their predecessors during the 19th and early 20th centuries, they would
be working 10, 12 or even 14 hours - not only on May 1, but six days a
week. Worn down by their unrelenting job schedule, they would have neither
time nor inclination to enjoy the festivities of May Day or any other day.
Agitation for an eight-hour day began as early as the 1830s in the United
States. The fateful link with May Day was forged in 1884 when the
Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and
Canada, at its convention in Chicago, adopted a resolution declaring "eight
hours shall constitute a legal day's labor," and urged workers who were not
granted that benefit by May 1, 1886, to go out on strike.
Their family life, their desire for leisure time and their very health
devastated by 48-, 52- and even 72-hour work weeks, laborers responded
enthusiastically. When May 1, 1886, dawned hundreds of thousands of them in
Chicago, New York, Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati
and other cities either went on strike or vowed to do so unless companies
promptly accepted their demand.
Their demonstrations were marked by strong language but little violence on
May Day itself. Then, on May 4 and 5, lives were lost in both Chicago and
Milwaukee. At a union rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square, an assailant,
whose identify remains unknown to this day, detonated a bomb that killed
seven police officers and four bystanders and injured dozens more. In
Milwaukee, five people were killed and four wounded when troops broke up a
crowd of striking workers outside the North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills
Public officials and newspapers tarred all the strikers as anarchists and
communists. Seven union leaders were sentenced to die in Chicago. Four were
executed on Nov. 11, 1887. One committed suicide and the other two were
granted unconditional pardons six years later. In the hysteria, leaders of
the eight-hour demonstrations and strikes in other cities, including
Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and New York, were jailed and charged with conspiracy.
The cause of a reasonable working day was set back for years by the
employers' attacks of 1886. In the end, the eight-hour-day battle was
fought out over many decades, union by union, industry by industry. It was
1898 before West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio coal miners forced
operators to accept the eight-hour day. It took a bitter contest in
Congress and before the Supreme Court in 1916-17 for railroad management to
come around, still longer for some steelworkers to finally be freed from
the burden of 12-hour days six days a week. As late as 1938, labor leaders
were pressing Congress to grant crew members on Great Lakes tugs the right
to an eight-hour day.
The story of how American workers finally achieved that benefit, which we
all take for granted today, is not an exception but the rule. The most
basic rights and fundamental decencies have been won by employee
determination, not by employer generosity. Such reasonable demands as the
right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, vacations, sick
days, overtime pay, safe and sanitary workplace conditions have been fought
tooth and nail by those who would allow laboring people only second-class
Today, May Day remains a day of special memories for laboring men and
women. Indeed, American workers of the 21st century designate the entire
month of May as Labor History Month, a time to recall and honor the
sacrifices and achievements of their 18th, 19th and 20th century predecessors.
Adapted from a press release prepared by the Labor Archives Roundtable of
the Society of American Archivists, www.archivists.org