It’s a familiar routine: Walking into work, stowing your coat near your desk or in the breakroom. Nabbing a cup of coffee and then wandering down the hall or across the floor; 8:08, 9:02, 11:29... 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 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week. Of course, not all our work schedules are so neat and tidy, but with Labor Day weekend coming up on us, it’s good to remember, American workweeks have not always had that standard.

At the height of the industrial revolution, entire families worked in factories. Men, women and their children, 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 a.m. to 6 p.m.” and included two breaks for meals. Although their strike was less than successful, the movement caught on. In the 1830s the first general strike ever organized in the United States was headed by the Irish coal heavers, demanding a 10-hour workday. By the 1860s, the Chicago labor movement — one of the strongest in the nation — took up the cry, demanding an eight-hour workday 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.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the movement gained steam with New York Building Trades Workers successfully striking for an eight-hour workday, and on May 1, 1886, labor activist and Socialist Party leader Albert Parsons led over 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 (Chicago, San Francisco, New York) and across the trades (carpentry, manufacturing, printing) had won the right to an eight-hour workday. In 1914 the Ford Motor Company reduced their shifts to eight hours, and saw their 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 U.S. had brought the issue of the workday to national attention, and in 1916, Congress finally acted. The U.S. 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 which every person who has ever worked an hourly job in the U.S. today, owes their 40-hour workweek, 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 bloody, violent and cost workers their lives. The eight-hour workday lets us get home in time to scramble for dinner, juggle a second part-time job or even just take the family dog on an evening or morning walk. It’s simple: Sometimes it seems impossible to manage, but it’s a right that American workers fought long and hard to give us


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.

Callie Vandewiele grew up in Clackamas County and is an alum of Clackamas Community College.

Contract Publishing

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