The Struggle to Win the 40-Hour Workweek

July 24, 2018

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(This article first appeared in the July-August 2018 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine) 

By Research & Education Director Joyce Robinson 

The upcoming celebration of Labor Day is a good time to remember the role labor unions have played in raising living standards and improving the quality of life for working people in the United States. While most people recognize that unions have been beneficial for their members, there is little known about the role of labor unions in winning the 40-hour workweek.

In the 1800s, many Americans worked seventy hours or more per week and the length of the workweek became an important political issue. In the United States, a few limited eight-hour-day laws were on the books shortly after the Civil War. One, in Illinois, was passed in 1867, followed in 1868 by a law covering certain classes of federal workers. So a reduction in the work week became a leading issue for the labor movement and the struggle to win the 40-hour work week is the thread that ties together the history of American Labor. 

40-Hour Workweek Timeline

1866 – The country’s first union federation, The National Labor Union, urged Congress to pass a law mandating the eight-hour workday.

May 1, 1867 – The Illinois Legislature passed a law mandating an eight-hour workday. Many employers refused to cooperate, and a massive strike erupted in Chicago.

May 1, 1886 – The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (later the AFL) called for a national strike. Nearly one million American workers stopped work that day. The purpose of the “May Day Strike” was to bring pressure on employers and state governments to create an eight-hour workday.

May 4, 1886 – The “Haymarket Affair” took place at a labor demonstration at Haymarket Square in Chicago. It began as a peaceful rally in support of workers striking for an eight-hour day. An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb as police acted to disperse the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; dozens of others were wounded.

May 19, 1869 – President Ulysses S. Grant issued a proclamation that guaranteed a stable wage and an eight-hour workday for government workers only. “Whereas the act of Congress approved June 25, 1868, constituted, on and after that date, eight hours a day’s work for all laborers, workmen, and mechanics employed by or on behalf of the Government of the United States.”

1898 – The United Mine Workers won an eight-hour work day.

1906 – The eight-hour day was widely instituted throughout the printing industry.

1910 – Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, and Utah, reduced the legal workweek limit for women from 54 to 48 hours.

1914 – Ford Motor Company instituted eight-hour shifts and raised wages. However, many Ford workers still worked six days a week.

1916 – Congress passed the Adamson Act, a federal law that established an eight-hour workday for interstate railroad workers, with additional pay for overtime work.

June 25, 1938 – President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, that creates the right to a minimum wage, and time-and-a-half overtime pay when people work over forty hours a week. It also prohibited most employment of minors in “oppressive child labor.”

1940 – Congress amends the Fair Labor Standards Act, reducing the federal workweek limit to 40 hours. The realization of the 40-hour workweek that has become standard across many American industries was hard fought. It took deadly accidents and employees banding together to make it happen. Let’s not take these gains for granted. We must forever remain vigilant in our fight for respect, justice and safe working conditions. 

Sources: Entrepreneur, NBC news, Economic History Association, PBS, and Wikipedia

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