How did the 8-hour work day come to exist?

In order to understand the reasons that led the workers to rebel against their  employers, we must go back to the United States of the late 19th century. Workers back then were forced to work 14-hour days.

For more than a hundred and twenty-five years ago, May 1st has been regarded as the International Workers’ Day, an occasion in which the rights of the workers are celebrated, but not everyone knows that it began as the day when an 8 hour work day was claimed, and later it became a tribute to those who died in Chicago defending the dignity of the working class.

The late 19th century United States is the time that will allow us to understand the reason why the workers rebelled against their employers, who forced them to work shifts of 12 to 14 daily hours, for miserable wages and in horrible hygienic conditions.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) celebrated a meeting in Chicago in 1884 in which the claiming of the 8 hour work day was agreed upon to begin from the first day of May, in such a way to make the conditions of workers in companies equal to the ones that were enjoyed by the public sector.

Among workers circulated a leaflet calling for a day of rebellion, not resting, a day of protest against oppression and tyranny, against ignorance and war of all kinds. One day to start enjoying eight hours of work, eight hours of rest and eight hours for what the workers pleased.

But social unrest grew until, during a general strike on May 1, 1886, dozens of people were killed in several US cities, although it was in Chicago (standard bearer of the urban movement city), where these events had the greatest impact.

That year, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor managed to get the corporate sector to give in due to the pressure exerted by strikes all over the country. The then president of the United States, Andrew Johnson, promulgated a bill that established the 8-hour workday. Since employers didn’t want to comply with it, the workers of the industrial city of Chicago began a strike on May the 1st, which began with a protest of more than 80,000 workers led by Albert Parsons.

A meeting called by anarchist groups in Haymarket Square resulted in the death of fourteen people, including seven policemen, and authorities blamed these events on eight people, among which were the editors of the workers’ newspaper Arbeiter Zeitung, an ardent defender of labor rights.

That movement had been called and ignorant and disrespectful,  a delirium of unpatriotic lunatic and manifesting that it was the same as asking for a  salary to be paid without working anything at all.

They were August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Adolph Fischer, Michael Schwab, Louis Lingg, George Engel and Albert Parsons, all militants of German origin, who were sentenced to be hanged after a controversial trial which included the presence of false witnesses.

However, Schwab and Fielden commuted their death penalty with life imprisonment, and Neebe for fifteen years in prison, while Lingg committed suicide in his cell, so only Spies, Engel, Parsons and Fischer were executed in November 11, 1887, a day that has been known ever since as the “Black Friday”.

It was the tribute to those known as the “Martyrs of Chicago” the reason why May Day as the day of workers’ struggle was introduced and popularizing the cause of the eight-hour day, to the point that the Second International, held in 1889 in Paris, officially declared International Workers’ Day.

After several years paying homage to those who died for labor rights, the eight-hour workday was proclaimed by the International Labour Organization in an international conference held in Washington in 1917, although most countries did not adopt it until two years later.

From that moment on, May the 1st became a holiday, with celebrations and peaceful demonstrations. And it is held that very day worldwide, except in Canada and the United States, where, despite being the birthplace of the defense of labor rights, this “party” takes place since 1882 every first Monday of September, the so-called “Labor Day” with a parade, concerts and picnics.

Currently, many countries reminisce May 1st as the origin of the modern labor movement. Others, such as New Zealand, celebrate it on the fourth Monday in October. In Australia, each federal state decides the date of celebration: the first Monday of October in the Australian capital, New South Wales and South Australia; the second Monday of March in Victoria and Tasmania; the first Monday of March, in Western Australia; and May 1st in Queensland and the Northern Territory.

In 1954 Pope Pius XII tacitly supported this day of collective remembrance by declaring it as feast of St. Joseph the Worker. In Portugal, this date began to be celebrated freely after the triumph of the Revolution of the Carnations on 25 April 1974.

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