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The successes and failures of the 10-hour workday movement in the United States

Ian Harvey

In the early 1820s, labor reformers in the United States were pushing for ten-hour workdays instead of the normal eleven hours.

Legislation that they had finally won in 1840 had many loopholes and didn’t actually change the working hours for most workers. What followed was a tangled chronicle of strikes and legislative appeals designed to lighten the plight of workers. Then, in the 1850s, the northern merchant-capitalists pushed for and got an 11-hour workday, which effectively quelled the 10-Hour Movement.

Organized labor Photo Credit

Organized labor Photo Credit

The movement for a ten-hour workday started first in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. Besides being centers for merchants and rising capitalist classes, these cities also had large artisan populations. The movement started as a conflict between the masters and journeymen, as the masters tried to control the journeymen’s free time. The household labor systems had begun breaking down, and masters began a struggle to control the lives of their workers. Time had now become the dominant method of measuring work, instead of the nature of the task as it used to be.

In 1825, Boston carpenters fought for the 10-hour day, and other workers in the building trades followed. They were easily put off, as they simply weren’t hired if they complained. This quickly quashed any thought of pushing for a ten-hour work day, at least temporarily.

In 1827, the movement gained popularity from the speeches and pamphlets of William Heighton. His reasoning sounded good to the Philadelphia carpenters, and 600 went on strike, though it was ultimately unsuccessful. The following year, workers went on strike again; this time it was the city’s bricklayers, and they won the 10-hour workday for a season. Only New York City workers managed to keep their 10-hour day for more than a short span. When their hours came under attack, the craftsmen rallied together and created the New York Workingman’s Party. Hours in New York shops remained at 10 hours per day.

“The Hand That Will Rule The World—One Big Union”

“The Hand That Will Rule The World—One Big Union”

The demand for 10-hour days remained central to the labor movement, and skilled workers continued to strike in the Northeast. In 1834, the Boston Trades’ Union was formed; this was more organized by trades instead of just the push for a 10-hour workday, and they looked at a range of issues, such as women working in factories and long hours for child laborers.

A newly-published circular in 1835 caused a wave of more strikes centered on the 10-hour issue. Union members unsuccessfully held a strike for two months, causing the union to collapse and the workers to return to their old hours. Philadelphia’s workers responded to this, and the city fell to a city-wide strike of all the working men. The strikers also petitioned the Common Council, and a law was passed that there would be a 10-hour work day for all city workers. Private employers soon followed the mandate, and so Philadelphia handily won the 10-hour day.

The red flag is a symbol of the labor movement.

The red flag is a symbol of the labor movement.

In 1840, President Van Buren issued an executive order making all manual workers on government contracts work a 10-hour day to match up with their clerical workers. In the 1840s, the 10-hour movement attracted factory workers and unskilled laborers, many of whom were female textile workers. Women generally were the major players in the movement during the 1840s, with the backing of men. Holding strikes was their major weapon. When fighting for reduced hours for women and children, the case was pushed for health issues in the workplace, which were mostly due to short meals breaks and bad air. The men pushed for education, designating that the men were motivated by the chance to exercise their rights, whereas women needed protection from overwork. No laws were passed until 1847, but when they were finally on the books, they changed nothing – they applied only to those not under a private contract with an employer.

Read another story from us: Before becoming the founder of the Impressionist movement, Claude Monet was an aspiring caricature artist

The hour question rose again in the 1850s as the nation struggled over the slavery issue. By the 1850s slavery was once again a political flashpoint. However, once again the 11 hour day won out, and the issue was removed from the political agenda.