Eight-hour Day

Despite the fact that many in the United States connect the eight-hour day to Ford Motor Company's radical “five dollars a day for eight hours of work” movement in 1914, the idea had been part of many labor platforms since the late eighteenth century. In 1791 carpenters in Philadelphia went on strike, demanding the establishment of a 10-hour work day. In 1835 there was yet another strike in Philadelphia by Irish coal heavers, demanding that the work day should be from 6:00 to 6:00, with two hours for meals and 10 for work. The specific eight-hour day for work was sought as early as 1836, but it was not gained by particular labor groups until 1842 when Boston ship carpenters established an eight-hour work day in their industry. Other cities followed suit. The Illinois legislature passed a law that granted laborers an eight-hour work day after agitation by Chicago labor organizations. The law, however, proved to be highly ineffective, as it was littered with loopholes and contradictions that allowed employers to disobey it.

With laborers across the United States calling for the eight-hour day, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the National Eight Hour Law Proclamation on May 19, 1869, which was proposed by Congress on June 25, 1868. While this law recommended an eight-hour work day, it only affected federal employees. Riots and strikes continued. The United Mine Workers gained the eight-hour day in 1898; the Building Trades Council of San Francisco gained it in 1900; and, with the passing of the United States Adamson Act in 1916, railroad workers gained the eight-hour day along with the payment of overtime, which was the first federal law to regulate the working day of private companies. Finally the eight-hour day for all working people was granted under the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1937 as part of the New Deal, which also granted overtime and bonus salaries for individuals who worked longer than a 40-hour work week.

It did not take long for laborers to demand shorter work days after the Industrial Revolution. While the eight-hour day was not sought until the mid-nineteenth century, shorter work days spanning 10 hours or less were called for by various socialist and labor groups by the late eighteenth century. Labor groups, unions, and socialist movements added to the cries for shorter work days, and early in the twentieth century countries began to give in, regulating shorter work days on the national level. Moreover, many laborers would have to wait till the mid-twentieth century before succeeding in obtaining a regulated eight-hour work day across the globe.

Marianne E. Kupin

See also: Flint Strike (1936–1937) ; Haymarket Riot (1886) ; New Deal ; Populism ; Progressivism ; Rochdale Plan ; Waite, Davis (1825–1901)


The American Presidency Project. “Proclamation 182—Eight Hour Work Day for Employees of the Government of the United States,” May 19, 1869. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=70245#axzz1zQhWlaWH . Accessed January 3, 2013.

Ford Motor Company. “Henry Ford's $5-a-Day Revolution.” Ford, January 5, 1914. http://corporate.ford.com/about-ford/heritage/milestones/5dollarday/677-f-dollar-a-day . Accessed January 3, 2013.

Haverty-Stacke, Donna T. America's Forgotten Holiday: May Day and Nationalism, 1867–1960. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

Kimber, Julie, and Peter Love. The Time of Their Lives: The Eight-Hour Day and Working Life. Melbourne: Australia Society for the Study of Labor History, 2007.

McCarthy, Terry. An Abridged History of the Trades Union and Labour Movement from the Industrial Revolution to the Present Day. London: Saddle and Stitch, 2009.

Owen, Robert. “Foundation Axioms.” Society for Promoting National Regeneration, 1833.

U.S. Department of Labor. “Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, as Amended.” http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/statutes/FairLaborStandAct.pdf . Accessed January 3, 2013.