August 20, 1866
National Labor Union Requested an Eight-Hour Workday
How many hours is a reasonable workday? On August 20, 1866, the National Labor Union, made up of skilled and unskilled workers, farmers, and reformers, called on Congress to order an eight-hour workday.
The National Labor Union was created to pressure Congress to make labor law reforms. The Union failed to persuade Congress to shorten the workday and the labor organization itself dissolved in 1873. However, its efforts heightened public awareness of labor issues and increased public support for labor reform in the 1870s and 1880s.
In this film, turn-of-the-century factory workers keep track of the hours they worked by punching a time clock. Do you know anyone who punches a time clock?
In the 1870s and early 1880s, a group called the Knights of Labor was more successful with its efforts to reform labor laws. In 1886, the Knights of Labor included 700,000 laborers, shopkeepers, and farmers. The union discouraged strikes and instead promoted changing society.
But in 1886, a series of violent strikes waged by railroad workers hurt the union’s reputation. In May, police were called in when fighting broke out between striking workers and strikebreakers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Haymarket, Illinois. Two union men were shot by police, and an explosion killed seven policemen. The outbreak became known as the Haymarket Riot.
The result of the Haymarket Riot was that the eight-hour-workday movement came to be seen as “radical.” Therefore, popular support for organized labor decreased. As the Knights of Labor declined, the American Federation of Labor rose. The Federation focused on protecting the independence and established privileges of individual unions.
Little progress was made in establishing an eight-hour workday until 1933. During this year, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, an emergency measure taken by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression. The Act provided for the establishment of maximum hours, minimum wages, and the right to collective bargaining (allowing unions to represent their members in negotiations with an employer). The Recovery Act was soon replaced by the Wagner Act, which assured workers the right to form unions. It was not until the 1950s that most workers gained the eight-hour workday. Do you know anyone who belongs to a union?