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Eight-Hour Movement

Eight-Hour Movement

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When the Chicago labor movement emerged in 1864, the eight-hour day quickly became its central demand. Exhausted by 12 to 14 hours a day of work, six days a week, workers throughout the city and state organized to secure a law limiting the workday to eight hours. In 1867, the Illinois legislature passed such a law but allowed a huge loophole that permitted employers to contract with their employees for longer hours. Trying to eliminate that option, Chicago labor called for a citywide strike that began on May 1, 1867, and practically shut down the city's economy for a week. When the strike collapsed, the law collapsed with it and workers were left unprotected.

In the 1880s, the issue resurfaced and became the key demand of a movement that shook the city and the nation. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions—predecessor of the American Federation of Labor—urged American workers to observe an eight-hour day beginning May 1, 1886. Implying direct rather than legislative action, the eight-hour movement united skilled and unskilled workers of all nationalities. Chicago anarchists, trade unionists, and the Knights of Labor, despite the coolness of their national organizations, actively promoted and profited from the movement, and made Chicago its national center.

In the midst of that scheduled agitation, the bomb exploded at Haymarket, giving the movement its martyrs and diverting and defeating the larger movement of which it had been a part. After Haymarket, the eight-hour day became one among a menu of issues promoted by the labor movement, rather than the key catalytic goal around which a movement organized. Under pressure from newly stable labor institutions, different industries gradually decreased hours, giving workers more time for leisure activities. The eight-hour day finally became a reality in 1938, when the New Deal's Fair Labor Standards Act made it a legal day's work throughout the nation.

Roediger, David R., and Philip S. Foner. Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day. 1989.
Schneirov, Richard. “Political Cultures and the Role of the State in Labor's Republic: The View from Chicago, 1814–1877.” Labor History 32.3 (Summer 1991): 401–421.
Nelson, Bruce C. Beyond the Martyrs: A Social History of Chicago's Anarchists, 1870–1900. 1988.