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
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.
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.
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.
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
- Search American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 on eight hour day to retrieve interviews such as the one with Matthew White quoted above.
- Peruse a nineteenth-century ditty extolling the plan for an eight-hour workday, “The Eight-Hour System,” in the collection America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets.
- Explore the Chicago Historical Society’s Haymarket Affair Digital CollectionExternal. It provides on-line access to primary source materials relating to this controversial moment in Chicago’s past and a pivotal event in the early history of the American labor movement.
- Experience The Dramas of Haymarket External, an online project produced by the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University, which is organized in the form of a tragedy in five acts. Although the site devotes considerable attention to the May 4, 1886, protest meeting, at which a dynamite bomb attributed to political radicals killed several policemen, it also provides historical context on the political climate and events leading up to and following the riot.
- Wood engravings based on sketches by C. Bunnell and Charles Upham of the Haymarket Riot appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on May 15, 1886, the week after the confrontation. View these engravings online:
- “The Anarchist-Labor Troubles in Chicago. Explosion of Bomb May 4th, in Haymarket Square, Chicago, and Priest Giving Last Rites to Policeman.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 15, 1886.
- “The Anarchist-Labor Troubles in Chicago. The Police Charging the Murderous Rioters in Old Haymarket Square on the Night of May 4th.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 15, 1886.
- Search on Isaac Myers in The African-American Experience in Ohio: Selections from the Ohio Historical Society External to learn more about the first president of the Colored National Labor Union. Read a review of the life of the “Late Isaac Myers, of Baltimore, Md. External” to learn why Myers, considered the first important African-American labor leader, spoke against the National Labor Union’s decision to form a third political party.
- Read Today in History features on the origins of Labor Day, on the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885, and the day granite workers of Barre, Vermont, received an American Federation of Labor charter.
- Search the photograph and print collections on labor union, worker, or strike to find more images of industrial workers.
- View films of early nineteenth-century laborers at work in a factory, such as the example on this page, “Girls Taking Time Checks, Westinghouse Works,” by browsing the collection, Inside an American Factory: Films of the Westinghouse Works, 1904.