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Labor Day

Labor Day August 26, 2021

International Workers Day (May Day), the counterpart to our September Labor Day, was inspired by an 1886 event here in Chicago. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor obtained a city permit for a May rally/demonstration in the Haymarket area (now a trendy restaurant spot).  Late in the evening someone at the rally threw dynamite. Police began to fire wildly into the dwindling crowd. Soon seven officers and four workers were dead.

Eight workers were quickly rounded up, including a lay minister, a printer and others. Seven were found guilty by August. Two got life sentences (one of whom was killed in jail); one was given 15 years. The remaining four were hanged in November.

A couple years after the Chicago event European countries designated May 1st as Labor Day to honor the Haymarket Workers. For that reason, May 1st became the feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

And what was the issue that brought the workers to the Haymarket rally? Shorter work hours.

This was hardly the first effort in our country to reduce the working day. The 1830s saw an Eight-Hour Day Movement, details Mike Konczal in Freedom from the Market (The New Press, 2021). As part of that movement, Boston Trade Unions issued the “Ten-Hour Circular.” (Presumably they thought eight was unachievable.) This statement prompted six months of rotating strikes and protests across Boston. It was used in Philadelphia to start a general strike. There was a big parade after which the city passed a ten-hour workday law. In Baltimore the city mechanics, drawing on the same statement, won a ten-hour day. “Demands for time could unify workers facing different working circumstances,” writes Konczal.

By 1868 Pennsylvania had “set an eight-hour workday as the default” suggestion. When it came to enforcing this suggestion or any other work-related law was overcoming the prevailing attitude that contracts are “a foundational form of freedom and government should never interfere with markets,” says Konczal. The contract need not be a written document. The worker knew the score when she or he took the job. The freedom of contract assumption, then and now, is a fallacy because “government and courts intervened in important ways,” but not in the interest of workers. Laws and court decisions were intended “to boost the power of bosses and owners while limiting and stymieing the actions of workers.”

The notion of an eight-hour day gained traction during the Great Depression. In 1930 W. K. Kellogg (1860-1951) changed the work schedule at his cereal company. Production went to three shifts per day, six hours each. An employee normally clocked 30 hours per week. Wages were increased by 12.5%. “This will give work and paychecks to the heads of 300 more families in Battle Creek,” Kellogg said.

The union at Kellogg proudly issued progress reports, documenting improved efficiency, decreased unit cost and dramatic reduction in injuries. Other well-known companies (Remember Hudson Motor Car?) joined the experiment. However, after World War II workers and their unions wanted to participate in the consumer boom. They pushed for more hours in order to get more pay, including overtime. Kellogg gradually phased out the 30-hour week and completely eliminated it by 1985, writes Benjamin Hunnicutt in Kellogg’s Six Hour Day (Temple University Press, 1996).

Covid-19 presents an opportunity to experiment with remote work, flex time and other work arrangements. The topic of shorter hours is also in the mix because our Covid-19 economy has meant a shortage of competent workers in some key sectors. Thus, some business executives see reduced hours as a tool for recruitment and retention.

To be continued…

Droel is associated with National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).


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