May Day for Workers

May Day is a holiday of sorts. For some, it’s a day to dance around a Maypole or give flowers to neighbors. But it is also known as International Workers Day. In the United States, this day was first celebrated in 1886, as hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike to demand an eight hour workday.

The 8 hour workday

Now, we are so accustomed to the idea of the 8-hour workday that it seems like the normal meaning of a full-time working day. In some industries, workers are given only 32 working hours each week so they can be classed as part time and denied benefits.

But 140 years ago it was common for workers to toil for 10 hours a day, 12, or even 16. At the 1884 convention of the largest labor organization in the country, labor leaders announced that as of May 1, 1886, workers would work for eight hours only, with no reduction in pay.

They had been agitating for this schedule since 1866, when the National labor Union called upon Congress to establish the law. The Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor carried on the work and were able to organize a nationwide strike for May 1.

8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will

The 8-hour day had already been mandated for some workers. President Grant required it for government employees in 1869. Illinois made a state law to that effect run 1886, but employers ignored it, leading to the May Day strikes against the scofflaws. Railway workers got it in 1916. Henry Ford’s factories instituted it in 1926. But it didn’t become the law of the land until 1940.

It took nearly a century to accomplish the 8-hour workday, and it has been less than a century since that became the definition of full-time work. Now people who work more than 40 hours a week are entitled to overtime pay, and those who work 40 hour weeks can count on benefits and protections one the job.

It wasn’t easy to get those rights. We should continue to honor and celebrate them. So Happy May Day!


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