Many of us today take for granted that a full work day is eight hours. Of course, many people work more than eight hours a day, but “overtime” pay is usually expected. (There are exceptions. I know from personal experience that bus drivers are exempt from overtime laws.) There was a time, however, when the length of a working day was not regulated. Ten, twelve, sixteen or more hour days were common. The fight for an eight hour working day began in the aftermath of the Civil War, but the idea of government regulating the workday presented serious ideological complications.
Labor agitators and workingmen’s unions pushed for eight hour laws in the mid-1860s with mixed results. Even when successful at getting such laws passed at the state and local level, the courts often interpreted the laws in such a way as to make them meaningless. The majority of business owners argued that a reduced workday would have deleterious effects on production, workingmen’s income, and society at large.
One argument was that “licentiousness, gluttony, drunkenness, exposure, bad habitations, noisy and turbulent homes, will wear men out in half the time that steady labor in the mills at usual hours will.” The worker needed to be protected from himself. “Too much leisure is a detriment to his welfare.” Labor leaders, on the other hand, argued that the 24 hours of a day naturally divided into eight hours of work, eight hours for family and self-improvement such as education, and eight hours for sleep. Some employers who voluntarily shortened workday hours contended that production had actually increased, but these were few; most argued vociferously that production would fall. Workers argued that exhaustion from long hours caused them to work more slowly in the final hour of the day, and also, that they missed more work time due to illness and injury.
Politicians of both parties, Republican and Democrat, grappled with the issue. On the one hand, property rights and freedom of contract seemed to suggest that the length of a workday should be a matter between employer and employed. Trade unions with their eight hour demands interfered with “the employer’s pretensions to exclusive control of his own property,” and furthermore “personal freedom is also destroyed, because the trade unions will not permit the men to do what they would of their own free option.” On the other hand, as the Philadelphia Daily News stated:
“When a man is without means to subsist upon, his wants compel him to work, and he must ask for employment as a favor from someone who has the property required to carry on some kind of productive work. In plain language, property is a tyrant, and the people are its slaves…the penalty for resistance to its orders is starvation.”
And workers voted, leading politicians of both parties to at least pay lip service to the eight hour day. In order to avoid the appearance of the government meddling in private business, however, pressure came to bear on the idea of federal government workers being given an eight hour day. It was supposed that the benefits of an eight hour day could be proven to private employers through the example of federal workers. In December of 1865, Senator B. Gratz Brown proposed hearings on the subject of a federal worker eight hour day, but it would take until 1867 for a bill to finally pass. The bill had a major flaw however; it did not specify whether or not federal workers’ pay would remain the same or be reduced along with the number of hours worked. Up until this time daily or weekly wages were more common than hourly wages. Most federal executives reduced wages along with the mandated reduction in hours of work.
The workers appealed to Washington, but President Johnson’s Attorney General ruled that the law only addressed hours, not wages. Initially the change of administrations from Johnson to Ulysses Grant didn’t seem to help. Grant’s Attorney General reiterated his predecessor’s ruling. But, Grant himself took up the issue. On May 19, 1869 he issued an executive order that stated:
“From and after this date no reduction shall be made in the wages paid by the Government by the day to such laborers, workman, and mechanics, on account of such reduction in the hours of labor.”
Apparently Grant’s effort did not have the effect he hoped for because three years later he was compelled to reissue the same proclamation, saying:
“And whereas it is now represented to me that the Act of Congress and the proclamation [of 1869] have not been strictly observed by all officers of the government having charge of such laborers, workmen, and mechanics…”
An appropriations bill was subsequently passed in Congress that restored all pay lost by federal employees due to pay reductions between passage of the bill and Grant’s proclamation.
Opponents of the federal eight hour law continued to fight for its repeal. Though unsuccessful in their attempts to repeal, they had allies on the Supreme Court. Through cases brought before them, the court essentially declared that while the law was valid it was not obligatory. “A claims court declared that the eight hour law was ‘simply passed in deference to a sentiment of philanthropy,’ while wages and hours must be ‘determined by the inexorable laws of business.’”
Labor would have to continue the fight.
See “Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862-1872″ by David Montgomery (1967) for a more detailed account.