Wednesday, May 23, 2012

People died for a forty-hour workweek

This should be required reading in middle school history classes. Everyone needs to be aware of the history behind the rights they take for granted.

People died for a forty-hour workweek.
by James Robert Porter
This is a true thing. It happened. The one thing you’re virtually guaranteed to have when you get a job in this country. You might not get insurance, you might not get regular breaks…but you know when you walk in the door, you’re only going to be asked to work forty hours a week, or else you’re due overtime. This is basic. It’s not even a talking point anymore.
A couple of centuries ago, people felt so strongly about this right that they gave their lives for it. They died so you could enjoy it. They were shot, hanged, starved, let’s face it, they were MURDERED, and this happened so that you could enjoy a right that we now take for granted.
In the early part of the 20th century, the majority of Americans were working a 12-14 hour workday, regularly. When the average American walked into a new workplace, he could reasonably assume he would be working that kind of a schedule. It was expected. What most of us now consider a punishing overtime schedule, the majority of the workforce in 1905 regarded as a normal workweek.
And they thought it was bullshit.
As far back as 1791, Americans were lobbying for a shorter workday. This wasn’t a bunch of lazy New Deal liberals wanting to sit on their laurels. This was shortly after the founding of our country. This was the majority of carpenters in the nascent United States, sick of putting in long, grueling hours and knowing that there were better alternatives. In the next century, this demand had become commonplace. It turned out that the average employer worked their business from sunup to sundown, every single day, a schedule most of us can’t even comprehend. By the 1830s, people were pissed off about it.
People died for a forty-hour workweek.
At the close of the 1800s, most Americans still didn’t have what they wanted. Apparently, an eight hour workday was simply too much to ask from employers. So much so, that a great many employers found the need to hire their own police force to enforce the longer work days. When people talk of unionizing nowadays, many of them think it was just a bunch of socialists and liberals trying to push around their bosses, but that’s not the case. The reason unions took off was because, if you complained about something like a fourteen hour workday to your employer, and you didn’t have people backing you up, there was a real chance you were going to have your ass beat. Employers paid people to do this for them. If you were lucky, you just got fired for shooting your mouth off, but most people were not lucky. At least if you had a union, you had a sort of safety in numbers, even if it usually meant a more distributed beat down courtesy of the in house police force.
People died for a forty-hour workweek.
Pretty soon, people figured out they really only had one weapon they could use against their employers, and that was a general strike. Complaining just got you fired or beaten, going to the newspapers was about as effective as it is nowadays, since the people who printed the news, nine times out of ten, were the same people that made you work fourteen hours in the first place. But if you and all your union friends stopped working, you stopped production. If you stopped production, then the company loses money, and if that happens, you finally have their attention. In a sane world, this would lead to a civil airing of grievances and an honest attempt to address them.
This is not a sane world, because people died for a forty-hour workweek.
In 1886, a group of workers on strike at the McCormick plant in Chicago went on a march to Haymarket Square to protest the people trying to break the strike. This was a completely nonviolent demonstration. In return, police opened fire on them, wounding many and ending the lives of four people.
Oh, I’m sorry, did you think those were the company police? No, this was the city police. Paid for by the tax money of those dead men. They shot them because they wanted an eight-hour workday.
Soon afterward, during another rally, someone threw a dynamite bomb as the police tried to disperse the crowd. It went off, killing some officers, and in the ensuing chaos a gunfight broke out. Labor leaders were rounded up and, even though everyone agreed none of the people arrested actually had anything to do with the bomb, they were given death sentences anyway. Four of them were hung. Afterward, after pressure from the public, a judge repealed the death sentence for the remaining leader, saying that he and the four dead men were actually innocent and their execution was the result of "hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge".
People died for a forty-hour workweek.
In 1916, in the town of Everett, Washington, a contingent of striking shingle workers, supported by members of the IWW (Wobblies), were confronted by the town police led by the sheriff, one Donald McRae. McRae drew a gun on the nonviolent protestors and told them to turn around and leave. A shot rang out, starting a gunfight that, again, left a lot of dead people. Nobody knows who fired the first shot, but most historians agree that it’s unlikely it was from the worker side, considering they suffered the bulk of the losses and the few officers that were wounded during the battle were injured by their own side.
People died so you could work a forty-hour workweek.
There’s more. Much, much more. People were willing to die for this basic right we all enjoy now.
Employers were so against it that they were willing to murder so we couldn’t have it. Back in the early 1900s, an eight-hour workday was so threatening that it was worth killing someone over. The American people finally won it, paid for with blood and corpses, and now we don’t even think about it.
People died for a forty-hour workweek.

James Robert Porter is the son of 31-year IBEW member Donald Porter. His message is especially timely on May 1, which is the anniversary of the famous Haymarket Square rally in Chicago in 1886, which was the springboard for the long fight for an eight-hour day.

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