8-Hour Work Day

On August 20, 1866, the newly organized National Labor Union called on Congress to mandate an eight-hour workday. A coalition of skilled and unskilled workers, farmers, and reformers, the National Labor Union was created to pressure Congress to enact labor reforms. It dissolved in 1873 following a disappointing venture into third-party politics in the 1872 presidential election.

I’ve worked in the mill in my day, until nine o’clock at night, from seven in the mornin’…I wouldn’t want to go back to it, and I don’t think anyone else would. An eight hour day is long enough.

[Mother White]. Matthew White, interviewee. Connecticut, 1938-1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

Occupational Portrait of Three Railroad Workers Standing on Crank Handcar. [between 1850 and 1860]. Daguerreotypes. Prints & Photographs Division

Although the National Labor Union failed to persuade Congress to shorten the workday, its efforts heightened public awareness of labor issues and increased public support for labor reform in the 1870s and 1880s.

The Knights of Labor, a powerful advocate for the eight-hour day in the 1870s and early 1880s, proved more effective. Organized in 1869, by 1886 the Knights of Labor counted 700,000 laborers, shopkeepers, and farmers among its members. Under the leadership of Terrence V. Powderly, the union discouraged the use of strikes and advocated restructuring society along cooperative lines.

Leaders of the Knights of Labor. Chicago: Kurz & Allison, c1886. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

In 1886, a series of violent strikes waged by railway workers tarnished the union’s reputation. In May, police were called in when fighting broke out between striking workers and strikebreakers at the McCormick Reaper Works of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in the Haymarket area of Chicago, Illinois.

Attention Workingmen! Great Mass Meeting To-night, at 7:30 o’clock, at the Haymarket… Chicago, 1886. Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

The police shot two union men; later, an explosion killed seven policemen. Although the person who set off the bomb was never identified, four alleged anarchist labor leaders were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and hanged. Three more men remained imprisoned until they were pardoned by Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld in 1893. The Haymarket Riot branded as “radical” the eight-hour-day movement and diminished popular support for organized labor.

The decline of the Knights of Labor contributed to the rise of the American Federation of Labor, established under the leadership of Samuel Gompers in 1886. Whereas the Knights of Labor aimed at legislative reforms including the eight-hour day and child labor laws, the American Federation of Labor focused on protecting the autonomy and established privileges of individual craft unions.

Coal Breaker Boys. [between 1890 and 1910]. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Progress toward an eight-hour day was minimal until June 1933 when Congress enacted the National Industrial Recovery Act, an emergency measure taken by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the economic devastation of the Great Depression. The Act provided for the establishment of maximum hours, minimum wages, and the right to collective bargaining. Struck down by the Supreme Court in May 1935, the Recovery Act was soon replaced by the Wagner Act, which assured workers the right to unionize.

Depression-era workers continued, however, to bemoan their long, hard day. On May 16, 1939, Henry Truvillion sang the steelworkers’ blues for John and Ruby Lomax, who recorded him during their trip through Louisiana. Listen to recordings of work songs such as Henry Truvillion’s in the collection Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip.

Steel-Driving Song.” Performed by Henry Truvillion, May 16, 1939, between Newton and Burkeville, Texas. Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip. American Folklife Center
Girls Taking Time Checks, Westinghouse Works. G. W. “Billy” Bitzer, cameraman; American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1904. Inside an American Factory: Films of the Westinghouse Works, 1904. Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division

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