In the early 19th century, industrial capitalism rose in both the United States and Europe; as a result, workers (including children) were forced to work 16-18 hours per day. These long work hours, wage exploitation, and the lack of an established entity to advocate for better conditions for workers culminated in agitation for the 8 hour workday, the right to unionize, and better pay.
Even before the U.S. working class demanded an 8 hour workday, the Mechanics’ Union of Philadelphia (the country’s first trade union) and unorganized workers in other industrial centers demanded 10-hour workdays. After immense struggle and continued agitation by workers, the government and employers were forced to grant the 10-hour day in an effort to stem the tide of heightened labor unrest. However, realizing how organization and collective action could swing the pendulum from the favor of capital back to labor – the workers were not satisfied and raised the demand from a 10-hour work day to an 8-hour work day.
The agitation and demand for the 8-hour day spread overseas. For instance, the Australian building trade workers raised the slogan: “8 hours work, 8 hours recreation and 8 hours rest.” The Australian workers galvanized workers from other sectors to the cause, staging strikes, resulting in the 8-hour work day coming into law in 1856.
Back in the U.S. however, workers, despite feverish strike activity – still had not achieved the 8 hour day. In some states in the industrial north, the law mandated 8-hour workdays, however, employers exploited loopholes to force workers to toil for long hours. During the 1884 Chicago convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, the predecessor of today’s American Federation of Labor (A.F.L.), the 8 hour movement kicked into high gear when a resolution was passed declaring,
“eight hours shall constitute a legal day day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.”
It is imperative to understand why workers in the United States were unable to achieve the 8-hour work day until well after other working classes throughout the world already had done so despite the fact that U.S. workers were the first to raise the issue. In the U.S., millions of Black people were still in chattel slavery, forcing poorly paid laborers to compete with labor in bondage, a huge contradiction. It wasn’t until after that contradiction was eliminated (when slavery was abolished after the Union defeated the Confederacy in the Civil War), that organized labor could move forward in the 8-hour fight.
A year after the Civil War ended in 1866, the National Labor Union passed a resolution at its convention asking for an 8-hour work day law to be passed. Karl Marx, co-author of the Communist Manifesto, understood the class contradictions between low-wage labor competing with slave labor, writing in 1867:
“In the United States of America, any sort of independent labor movement was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor with a black skin is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new vigorous life sprang. The first fruit of the Civil War was an agitation for the 8-hour day…”
Slavery was crushed due in-large part to the hands of the branded toilers: slaves. Direct-action taken by millions of Blacks took shape during the war in the form of sabotage, espionage, work stoppages, slowdowns and mass desertions from plantations.
After the 1884 convention, 8-hour leagues and associations were organized throughout the U.S. Increased strikes by both organized and unorganized labor followed suit. The American working-class carried this momentum to the eventual first May Day strike, which took place on May 1, 1886.
Workers had great success that May Day fighting under the unifying banner of the demand for the 8-hour workday. According to the International Workers of the World, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the U.S. walked off their jobs. In Chicago, which was at the heart of the strike movement, the Central Labor Union, comprised of left wing-led unions – helped other organized labor bodies get 40,000 workers to strike.
The success of May Day and the continued labor struggles by the U.S. working-class during ensuing years — caught attention abroad. Thus, the Second International – an organization comprised of socialist and labor parties from around the world – declared May 1st International Workers’ Day during its 1889 Paris, France meeting.