During the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, child labor was common, slavery was still legal in many places, and for free men, the average work day was 10-16 hours. There was no middle class and those who were not rich traveled in “steerage”. The adoption of the 40-hour work week was in itself a labor that was hard-fought. The Briton Robert Own called for a ten-hour day in 1810 and had formulated by 1817 the slogan: “Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest.” It was not until 1847 that women and children were granted a 10-hour day in Britain, such were the working conditions of the time. By 1836, demands for the 8-hour day finally reached the United States, but it was not until 1866 that the labor movement there decided on a course of action. That is when the National Labor Union passed this resolution in Baltimore:
“The first and great necessity of the present to free labour of this country from capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all States of the American Union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is achieved.”
While this is incredibly different from the rhetoric of capitalism that we hear on TV today, Unions worked tirelessly to achieve the goal that had been set: The eight hour work day. It took a great deal of effort. It was not until 1916 that the Adamson Act was passed as the first federal law that promoted the 8-hour day for railroad workers. For the first time, the working hours for private companies were regulated and it luckily surived a surpreme court challenge in Wilson vs. New. Still, it was not until the New Deal that the eight-hour work day became standard for most Americans.
So as you are sitting at your desk, remember that progress is slow. It took nearly a century to achieve an 8-hour work day after centuries in which people worked up to 16 hours for slave wages at times there was no middle class. Things are better now, but only after a good deal of hard work, numerous strikes, legal challenges and tenacity. Many people died for the simple right to have free time away from work. The powers that be have never appreciated the work that labor gives, though over two centuries, labor is no longer treated like chattle. Let us not go back to the 19th century.