Union lobbies Congress to mandate an eight-hour workday, Aug. 20, 1866

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On this day in 1866, the newly organized National Labor Union called on Congress to mandate an eight-hour workday. The coalition of skilled and unskilled workers, farmers and reformers pressured Congress to enact labor reforms. It dissolved in 1873 following an ill-advised venture into third-party politics in the 1872 presidential election.

Although the NLU 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. By 1886, the Knights counted 700,000 laborers, shopkeepers and farmers among its members. Under the leadership of Terrence V. Powderly, the union discouraged strikes and advocated restructuring society along cooperative lines.

In that same year, 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 Co. in the Haymarket area of Chicago.

The police shot two union men. Later, an explosion killed seven police officers. Although the person who set off the bomb was never identified, four alleged anarchist labor leaders were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and were hanged. Three other men remained imprisoned until Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld pardoned them in 1893. In the wake of the Haymarket Riot, the eight-hour-workday movement became widely seen as “radical,” diminishing for a time popular support for organized labor.

The decline of the Knights of Labor gave rise to 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 workday and child labor laws, the AFL focused on protecting the autonomy of individual craft unions.

As the 20th century dawned, a clear majority of Americans continued to work 12- to 14-hour days. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive (Bull Moose) Party, included in its presidential campaign platform a call for an eight-hour workday.

The Adamson Act in 1916 established an eight-hour day, with additional pay for overtime, for railroad workers. This was the first federal law that regulated the hours of workers in private companies. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in Wilson v. New.

Progress toward an eight-hour day stalled until June 1933 when, in response to the Great Depression, Congress enacted the National Industrial Recovery Act, a New Deal measure championed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The act established maximum hours, minimum wages and the right to collective bargaining. Struck down by the Supreme Court in May 1935, it was replaced by the Wagner National Labor Relations Act, which assured workers the right to unionize, and by the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

SOURCE: U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

By Andrew Glass

Article Photo:
Workers are seen on a flywheel assembly line at the Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park plant in Michigan in 1913. Henry Ford was one of the first to adopt an eight-hour day. | Ford Motor Company via AP
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