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The Eight Hour Work Day

"During the early 19th century, people often worked as many as 14 hours a day. Should working hours be reduced to eight hours a day (with no reduction in wages) for the good of the workers? Or would an eight-hour day harm industry?"

The start of the Industrial Revolution in the United States was the beginning of a new era. It completely changed the structure of American life. The creation of new inventions like the cotton gin, the spinning jenny, the power loom, the assembly line, as well as much more, transformed many home-based crafts to factory-based industries. As factories grew in numbers urbanization occurred in largely populated areas of the United States. Slowly the factories began to outnumber the more rural industries, bringing with it a swell of new workers. Because of the increase in available workers, especially after unskilled workers began to become very useful, employers did not bother themselves with providing workers with rights or a reasonable pay. This led to many of the first organized labor unions in the U.S. So, while it succeeded in providing new job opportunities for U.S. citizens and immigrants, and allowed for a much easier way to produce their everyday needs, the Industrial Revolution was also the beginning of many future conflicts involving laborers' rights and the like.

Ever since the beginning of factory work, employees had been exploited by their employers. They were refused reasonable wages, rights, as well as being forced to work in terrible environments. Eventually workers felt the need to ban together in order to be able to demand better working conditions, so to spare themselves of the, often, cramped, poorly ventilated, noisy, and dangerous environment they were forced to spend about half their day in. As well as pay increases for their hard work. Eventually unions began to form, such as the National Labor Union (NLU), the National Colored Labor Union (NCLU), the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor (AF of L), and more all intent on relieving the difficulties of factory work by proposing, ten, and later eight, hour work days, six day work weeks, with a five day work week being the dream, the end of child labor, workmen's compensation, control in factories/ownership, higher wages, and better working conditions.

While negotiations were originally intended to be peaceful, and at first that's just what they were, business men refused to give in to their workers' needs, refusing them at every turn. This led many unions to resort to protests and strikes to force employers to meet their needs. One of the first major strikes for workers' rights was the 1877 Railroad Strike, started mainly as a way to get back at employers for slashing their pay by 10% and then lowering it further. One hundred workers were dead at the end of the strike, showing how dangerous striking really was. Nevertheless, workers ignored the dangers in order to have a chance at gaining the rights that they deserved. There were many more strikes after the 1877 Railroad Strike, some of the most notable being the 1886 Haymarket/McCormack Hawester Strike, the 1892 Homestead Strike, the 1894 Pullman Strike, and the 1902 Coal Strike by the United Mine Workers. While all of these strikes were started for similar reasons, it was the Haymarket and Coal Strikes that were particularly initiated for the institution of an eight hour work day. Many felt confident about winning the eight hours, after relishing in the victory of a ten hour work day granted to them in 1847, though they soon realized it would take much time before that was ever given to them. However the Coal strike was important because it was the first time a president had ever stepped in to help the workers negotiate a compromise with their employers, even if they didn't get the eights hour day they wanted.

Finally in 1868, after about eight years of striking for their preferred work day, six states and several cities passed the eight hour law. Later on that year Congress enacted the law for all "laborers, workmen, and mechanics," who worked for the government. The law was expanded in 1892 to include all of those contracted by the government. Then in 1869, President Grant issued a proclamation stating that workers' wages would not be reduced due to the shorter working hours. However, even though this was all issued, many employers refused to acknowledge their workers' right to work less and would often force employees to work longer hours under the threat of losing their jobs, essentially blackmailing them. The violent events of the Haymarket strike only hurt their efforts further, as the workers were striking to have the eight hour laws enforced and implemented where they weren't already supposed to be implemented. However the riots only served to have the eight hour law revoked, leaving the idea to essentially die until the 1890s, where the fight for eight hours continued.

While a majority of male workers didn't agree that only eight hours of work were necessary for them, they strongly agreed with the idea that women should only have to work that long, and they agreed that an eight hour work day was the most ideal situation. There might have been much opposition to the eight hour work day, but many workers were for it. The arguments for the eight hours are as follows:

Advocates of the eight hour work day asserted that the long hours many employees were forced to work under were inhumane and were hardly better than slavery itself. The monotonous and repetitive jobs of factory workers put a great strain on them and, if they were allowed to work for shorter hours, they could have their much deserved leisure time, as well as improving their confidence in their employers and themselves. Proponents also claimed that the long hours were hazardous to the health of the employees. They claimed that the fatigue and weariness that came from working for so long exhausted workers, therefore lowering their immune system and making them more susceptible to disease as well as increasing the chances an injury in the work place. Supporters argued that, generally speaking, an employee that wasn't tired, was happy, and healthy would be much more productive in a shorter amount of time than one who was sluggish, uncaring, and irritated for a longer period of time. It was also made known that healthy people tended to live longer, therefore healthier employees would be able to work for their employers for longer periods of time. Advocates also denied the idea that more leisure time for workers would increase laziness, instead arguing that it would actually help to discourage laziness since a person who wasn't depressed and exhausted was likely to turn to alcohol to solve their problems. They believed that people would use their new-found free time productively by improving themselves intellectually as well as becoming better informed citizens, allowing them to make wiser political decisions, which would eventually benefit the nation as a whole. Lastly, they pointed out that the eight hour day would reduce the unemployment rate by producing more jobs, which would be important in times of economic strife.

Nevertheless, business owners refused to see the eight hour work day as anything more than a way for workers to cheat them out of their money. The arguments against the eight hour work day are as follows:

Critics of the eight hours asserted that industry could not afford to give workers the eight hour day because allowing employees to work for eight hours instead of ten, while still receiving the same pay, would lower production and raise costs. "Can they afford to pay as much for eighty per cent as they can for a hundred per cent, and compete with the world in our manufacturers?" questioned Senator Oliver Morton on the issue. Supporters also denied the claims that workers could produce more in eight hours than in ten. Even if it were possible for humans, they pointed out that the machines would continue producing at a constant rate, unable to produce more in eight hours than they could in ten, and since the employees were dependent on the machines, it was impossible for them to accomplish this feat. Moreover, they argued that some men preferred to work longer hours and that, even though the majority of workers were for the eight hour day, they should still be able to work for however long they wanted to. They asserted that some men simply needed to work longer hours in order to make their living, and working only eight hours would greatly hinder those individuals. Critics also claimed that the shorter hours would actually hurt the workers rather than do them any good. They believed that the extra leisure time would lead to an increase in idleness as well as drunkenness. Furthermore, anti-eight hour advocates warned that the eight hour laws would ruin the economic balance that had been created between capital and labor. They believed that interference would only worsen the economic condition and cause pay cuts, longer hours, as well as decreased efficiency. However, not all were necessarily against the eight hour day, just the eight hour law. Those individuals believed that those sort of laws would encroach on workers' rights to make contracts with factory owners. Overall, many critics believed that the eight hour law was more of a politically motivated legislation than anything else. However, despite opponents' efforts to strike down the eight hours law, it was first passed in 1907, eventually spreading till it was law everywhere.

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