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The Fight to Gain & Maintain the 40-Hour Workweek

“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!” chanted throngs of labor protesters flooding the streets of Chicago in 1886. The chants fell silent shortly thereafter when a large explosion ripped through the crowd, killing seven police officers and at least five civilians. The Haymarket Massacre marked a bloody escalation in the fight for fair treatment of workers near the turn of the last century.

And unfortunately, America’s fight for the 40-hour workweek still remains unfinished.

From the Presidential campaign trail to Wisconsin’s latest labor-law changes, it’s disheartening to see a renewed effort to dismantle that hard-fought worker victory. Imagine an America where a large portion of the working class are forced to slog to work every single day of the week, every week.

Two days never feels like enough time!

How many times have you muttered displeasure that another weekend flew by without much rest or relaxation? How often do you lament that you’ve once again pushed all your errands into those precious few moments of free time? Can you imagine a life where having a job means having no time to live beyond work?

That reality was commonplace not that long ago. It was less than 100 years ago, on May 1, 1926, when the Ford Motor Company became “one of the first companies in America to adopt a five-day, 40-hour week for workers in its automotive factories.”

This came after years of the labor union movement fiercely fought through deadly protests to secure two days of rest each week. Workers across the nation stood together to demand more humane workplace treatment. And this fight gets routinely glossed over in the history books.

What conditions led to the protests?

“Corporations use to work employees 80+ hours a week, offer no breaks, hire children, offer horrid, unsanitary work conditions, paid literally next to nothing, and even murder. Not murder with a pen like they do today, but actual murder,” says the AFL-CIO.

Aside from working horrendous hours for low pay alongside children operating dangerous machines, there was a general disregard for the safety and health of the whole workforce. Describing these conditions as chilling might be too kind for the reality of American work at the turn of the century.

Upton Sinclair detailed the harsh working conditions in the United States in the early 20th century in his novel The Jungle. The novel follows a fictional character, Jurgis Rudkus, a poor immigrant working in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. While the characters were a work of fiction, the working conditions were informed by fact:

“As for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting,–sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!”

Many American workers still enjoy the fruits of the labor-union’s fight even if those workers aren’t in a union themselves. But this doesn’t mean that this fight is finished. There is a renewed focus on stripping away many of the benefits afforded the average American worker. This includes the everlasting fight on minimum wage and a new effort to remove the standard of a 40-hour workweek.

The 40-Hour Workweek’s Uncertain Future

Recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a budget into law that removes the stipulation in the state’s labor law that protects industrial and retail employees’ right to one day of rest each week.

The revised law would “permit an employee to state in writing that he or she voluntarily chooses to work without one day of rest in seven.”

This labor-law exemption is one of the conditions that directly led to Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket Massacre. Protestors then and now assert how an employer may force that employee’s decision to forgo any days of rest.

After the budget became law, Wisconsin’s AFL-CIO chapter issued an immediate statement:

“In a blatant and shocking blow to the democratic process, Republicans took away the weekend in a late-night budget maneuver. All workers should have the right to a day of rest. It is a basic American ideal … The Wisconsin AFL-CIO calls for this budget item to be immediately removed.”

Supporters of Wisconsin’s new change remind critics that there is no right-to-rest stipulation or standardized 40-hour workweek on the federal level. In fact, President Obama vetoed a measure in 2015 to re-establish that federal standard.

On the 2016 campaign trail, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush suggested that “people need to work longer hours” in order to meet his proposed 4% economic growth under a hypothetical Jeb-Bush presidency.

In 2013, Maine Governor Paul LePage expressed his interest in lowering the legal working age to 12. He’s made numerous legislative attempts to pass this revised age limit.

LePage argues that having 12-year-olds in the workforce will help instill a respect for the work ethic that he finds lacking in American youths. Maine’s Governor understands the danger in letting children work full-time jobs. “But a 12-year-old working eight to 10 hours a week or a 14-year-old working 12 to 15 hours a week is not bad,” he said in an interview with DownEast magazine.

In 2011, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich suggested cutting school janitorial staff positions and having the children clean and maintain their institutions themselves.

Gingrich suggested that children as young as nine should begin regular afterschool maintenance on the facilities. He felt children should handle hazardous chemicals, “do electrical repairs, maintain the school grounds, take care of the HVAC equipment, and handle basic plumbing fixes, among other assorted jobs,” as explained by Jordan Weissmann of The Atlantic.


The 40-hour workweek may still feel like a slog to those wishing for an everlasting three-day weekend. But the alternative could be far worse. The worker-rights movement fought tirelessly for our weekend. Those two days are a gift compared to the horrid working conditions at the turn of the 20th century.

While the fight continues, and may still intensify, we should remain thankful for the long-fought battle to secure workers’ rights and any form of life balance we’re afforded when holding down a job. Let’s enjoy our two days off, we’ve earned them.

Published inSocial Impact