Eight Hour Working Day - A Struggle That Goes On


“The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today” - August spies, Haymarket Monument

It was a rainy day on May 4th 1886 at Haymarket Square Chicago. Only over 200 remained out of the 3000 workers gathered initially to protest the police brutality of the previous day. August Spies was concluding his speech and he had enthralled the audience with his fiery words against the police brutality upon the striking workers. The police contingent was marching in to disperse the crowd for the alleged 'inflammatory speech' that a bomb was hurled into the crowd from nowhere . The skirmish that followed with police firing and stone pelting ended in the death of seven policemen and four workers. The Haymarket affair , as it was later came to be known as, resulted in the hanging of four militant labour leaders of Chicago, namely Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fisher, George Engel and in the suicide of Louis Lingg.

The events started at the May First strike of 1886, which was most jubilant in Chicago, where alone tens of thousands of workers actively participated in the strike demanding an eight hour working day. The strike was militant but peaceful and had troubled the ruling class to the core. On 3rd May, a meeting of striking workers at McCormick Reaper Works were attacked by the police, resulting in the death of six workers. The May 4th Haymarket protest was held in this background. The events of May 1st to 4th in Chicago later inspired the International Working Class Movement to celebrate May 1st as International Workers’ Day with its elaborated slogans of International working class solidarity, Universal suffrage, War against imperialist war and colonial oppression, right to streets and right to organisation along with its core demand of shorter working day of eight hours by early 20th century.

The demand for a rational working day has been one of the earliest and most persistent impetuses of class struggle in the history of capitalism. The tug which had evolved over a long period in various parts of the world with the bourgeoisie stressing on longer working hours and workers protesting the same gave shape to labour movements all over the world. Karl Marx in his magnum opus 'Capital' has dedicated a whole chapter where he explains the importance of the working day in the capitalist mode of production and illustrates the struggle ensued by the working class of England to rationalise it. But the demand for eight hour working day predates Marx. It was the socialist reformer Robert Owen who formulated the eight hour working day goal, as early as 1817. He coined the slogan “Eight hour labour, Eight hour recreation, Eight hour rest”. The long working hours of the day extending in some cases even more than sixteen hours had serious implications in the health and general well being of the working men. Even women and children were made to work long hours in inhuman conditions that many succumbed to death in their twenties and thirties. Such an appalling situation forced liberals like Owen to take up the cause of reduced working hours. The movement gained momentum through different strikes throughout England and attained political importance by The Chartist Movement. Ten to nine working hours a day were granted in many trades due to the continuous struggle, and the condition of workers especially women and children were improved to an extent through factory laws enacted under public pressure.

Eight Hour Day Banner, Melbourne, 1856. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile under the ideological influence of the deported chartist leaders, the Australian working class, through personal struggles of 1840's and by the stonemasons agitation of 1856 in Melbourne and Sydney, had gained eight hour working day in some trades. The call for eight hours of work a day had spread to all parts of the world. As early as 1862, the railway employees in Howrah, India, had called for a strike demanding eight hours of work a day in which more than 1200 workers took part. The most vigilant struggle for reduced working day after Chartist Movement occurred across the Atlantic in North America. Even though various strikes for reduced working hours was organised by Labour Unions as early as 1827 in United States, the first concrete demand for an eight hour working day was stated at the founding convention of National Labour Union under the leadership of William H Sylvis. The convention remarked that the demand was key to “free labour of this country from capitalist slavery”. As a part of this movement several eight hour leagues were formed throughout USA and its congress enacted a law adopting eight hour work day in public works in 1868. This movement had influenced the Geneva congress of the First International held in September 1866 to state:

“ The legal limitations of the working day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation of the working class must prove abortive... The congress proposes eight hour as the legal limit of the working day”.

Although the movement under National Labour Union in US died out, the demand for a universal eight hour working day came to the forefront when the newly formed American Federation of Labour passed a resolution in October 1884 stating that from First May 1886 eight hours shall constitute a legal day of labour. Apart from the American Federation of Labour, other labour groups including the Knights of Labour had rallied in support of this proposition and the working class movement gained huge enthusiasm between 1884 to 1886. Estimated 5,00,000 workers were directly involved in the strikes for eight hour working day on May 1st. This movement had its culmination in the violent incident of Haymarket whose martyrs stamped their glorious feat in the history of class struggle. In the aftermath of the Haymarket incident there was a period of violent repression of working class movement in the United States that the American Federation of Labour decided to announce a nationwide strike on May 1st 1890 for eight hour working day. The call was taken up internationally and at the Paris congress of Second International in July 1889 it was reiterated that May 1 of 1890 will be accepted as the International day for protest demanding an eight hour working day.

Even though there were divisions in the international labour movements thereafter, May 1st has since been celebrated as the day of proletarian protest for shorter working day and improved working conditions. Lenin in a May Day pamphlet to his countrymen wrote about the importance of May Day as follows:

“In France, England, Germany and other countries where workers have already been united in powerful Unions and have won for themselves many rights, they organised May 1 a general holiday of Labour, leaving the stifling factories they march with unfurled banners, to the strains of music, along the main streets of the cities, demonstrating to the bosses their continuous growing power..... On this day workers also remind the bosses of their main demand: eight hour work, eight hour rest and eight hour recreation. That is what the workers of other countries are demanding now”.

Since then the demands of May Day have become more revolutionary and now more than 80 countries across the globe is observing May 1st as International Workers’ Day.

The struggle for eight hours working day had also its history in India starting from the Howrah railway employees strike in 1862. The working class in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay with the support of progressive liberal humanists like Shashipada Banerjee and N M Lokhunde was starting to protest against the inhuman working conditions by late 19th century. Many strikes sprung up in various trades demanding better working conditions and shorter working hours. By 1891 due to this continued struggle, the Indian Factory Law passed by the colonial government had reduced the working time of children to 9 hours and that of women to 11 hours. The Indian working class actively participated in the anti-colonial struggle along with its class struggle. May Day and the demand for 8 hour work day has always been in the forefront of its way forward. Factories Act of 1948 in independent India enacted a working hour of 9 hours per day with maximum of 48 hours a week to all sections of workers.

The struggle for reduced working day, as evident,is one of the most important issues around which class struggle has agglomerated around the world. But in this neo liberal political order all the gains that the working class had obtained by centuries of struggle is on the brink of a rollback. The new logic of target oriented working, especially in service sector poses the danger of the lengthening of working hours, thus sharpening the exploitation by imposition of nonsensical targets. The ability to organise and utilise the democratic rights are brushed under the carpet in the name of corporate culture. The exploitation is more rampant in the unorganised sector where the dispossessed rural and urban poor are toiling on the knees to meet the ends in their life. The old slogan of eight hours work, eight hours rest and eight hours recreation is still a mockery on their face. The central government is now pushing new labour reforms which is curbing many of the enjoyed privileges of the working class and by clauses like raising the maximum 'overtime' from 50 hours to 100 hours a quarter, it is creating the background for overt exploitation.

So when the neo liberal order is creating a world with more and more casualisation of labour, breaking its ability to organise and defend itself, let every May Day remind us of the glorious struggle that the working class has done over centuries to gain us these rights. It is time to rethink with utmost fervour of our responsibilities to future generations, as our inaction may stoop us back centuries behind.