From the Eight-Hour Day to the $15 Minimum Wage: A conversation between past and present

By Peter Rachleff and Kristi Wright, East Side Freedom Library

The study of labor history, while rooted in the past, has everything to do with how we envision the future – and how we chart a path to get there. At the East Side Freedom Library, we think that placing the movement for the eight-hour day in conversation with the movement for a $15 minimum wage can help us learn how to shape our future.

Take a trip into labor history with us. At the time of the American Revolution, one journeyman shoemaker out of every two could expect to become a self-employed master shoemaker. Decades of a division of labor and the invention of machines brought a very different world of work into being. By the Civil War, only one journeyman out of twelve became a self-employed master shoemaker. His 11 peers looked forward to a lifetime of wage labor. Facing that future, hours of work and days off altogether became serious issues for individual workers and the unions they organized.

As artisan work structures evolved into structures of permanent wage labor, unions not only bargained over the length of the working day, but also participated in social and political movements seeking to pass laws regulating hours and schedules. The more that individual employers insisted that granting “their” workers shorter hours would leave them at a competitive disadvantage, the more that unions sought city, state and even federal legislation.

The call for “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” became the rallying cry for the American labor movement after the Civil War, even as most workers put in 10-, 11- and 12-hour days. Skilled building trades workers, railroad workers, miners and factory workers came together with one vision and one voice. In 1886, the country’s two major labor organizations, the Knights of Labor and the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions joined together to call for a nationwide general strike. Their members pledged to walk out on May 1 and not to return to work until every worker was offered a standard eight-hour day.

At the center of the movement was the McCormick Harvester Works in Chicago, the largest factory in the U.S., with a workforce that included unskilled as well as skilled workers, and immigrants and workers of color alongside native-born whites. When police broke up a rally at the factory gates on May 4, there was violence and bloodshed. Strike leaders were arrested; some would be tried for murder and executed. The movement came to a halt for a generation, but workers and their unions revived the movement for an eight-hour day, and, after yet more years of organizing and protesting, finally received it with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.

It had taken three generations to make the eight-hour day a reality. Many of you might well be thinking how elusive that reality has remained, from Amazon warehouse workers assigned mandatory overtime, to fast food workers assigned “clopen” shifts, closing at night and opening the next morning. But the struggle, especially in the extended periods when it had traction as a movement, enabled the labor movement to reach beyond the boundaries of formal unions and the procedures of collective bargaining, connect workplaces with communities, unite experienced union members with women and men new to labor organization, and bring workers of color and immigrants into conversations, relationships and solidarity with white men. It was also a fertile ground for workers to make art and music, and dream of a better way of life.

Fast food strikers and supporters rallied during a one-day strike in Minneapolis in 2015. (UA file photo)

It is frustrating that a parliamentary maneuver allowed Congress to avoid dealing head-on with the issue of a $15 minimum wage. But that it had to consider raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 suggests the power that this movement – and its core ideas – now manifest. The Fight for $15 began in 2012 when two hundred fast-food workers walked off the job to demand $15 an hour and union rights in New York City. Today, it is a global movement of fast-food workers, home health aides, childcare teachers, airport workers, adjunct professors, retail employees and other underpaid workers in over 300 cities on six continents. Unions are among this movement’s most important supporters and resources, but it also includes workers without union affiliations, members of worker centers, teenagers, seniors and immigrants with and without documentation, encompassing a diverse group of whites and people of color with men, women and individuals across the spectrums of sexual orientation and gender identity.

In its inclusive membership, its vision of broad and sweeping change, and its insistence that all workers should share in the wealth that they produce, we can recognize this movement’s kinship with the movement for the eight-hour day. Organizers of the Fight for $15 proclaim on their website:

“When we first took the streets, the skeptics called us dreamers. They said a $15 wage was ‘unwinnable.’ We didn’t listen. We organized and we fought for what we knew was right. We didn’t win these increases because we elected supportive politicians to office. We won because we made them support us…

“We’ve already won raises for 22 million people across the country – including 10 million who are on their way to $15 – all because workers came together and acted like a union.”

The workers rallying outside the McCormick Harvester Works on May 1, 1886, would have understood them perfectly. As we try to rebuild the U.S. labor movement in the third decade of the 21st century, in the wake of the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, it is important that we hear this message, too.

– Peter Rachleff is the co-executive director of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul. Kristi Wright works with ESFL on developing the library’s relationships with the labor movement. Learn more at eastsidefreedomlibrary.org

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