Eugene V. Debs

The Eight Hour Work Day

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol. XII, No. 2. August 1911.
Online Version: E.V. Debs Internet Archive, 2006
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Robert Bills for the Socialist Labor Party of America and David Walters, December, 2006

SINCE the early years of the last century when the average work day was at least twelve hours for artisans in New York and other eastern states, efforts have been made by the workers through strikes and otherwise to reduce the length of the working day.

The federal report of the Bureau of Labor, quoted by Sidney Webb in “The Eight Hours Day,” shows that “as early as 1825, the building trades and the ship carpenters and caulkers of New York and other places along the Atlantic coast were striking for a Ten Hours Day,” and that “this movement was thenceforth carried on continuously by them and other trades with frequent strikes.”

From that time to this the struggle has been carried on by the workers, now in one form and now in another, to shorten the working day, and as Dr. Ely points out in his “Labor Movement in America,” “the length of the working day has formed a topic of absorbing interest to the wage-earners of the United States from the very beginning of its industrial history.”

The eight hour day was probably first proposed in England by Robert Owen as early as 1817, “when even children were kept at work in the textile mills for fifteen or sixteen hours a day.” However this may be there has been almost a century of agitation among modern workers for a shorter day, the hours being gradually reduced until now eight hours constitute a day's work in quite a number of skilled and partially skilled trades.

And eight hours is long enough, and even too long, for a day in modern industry, and there is no earthly reason why the work day should be longer. On the contrary, there is every reason why it should be reduced to that in every trade and occupation, and if the right effort is made on the part of the workers within the next year or two the eight hour day can be conquered for every industrial worker in America.

Upon that issue I believe the workers could all be united and brought into harmonious co-operation, not for the eight hour work day alone, but in the wider activities that are required to emancipate them from wage-slavery.

There is something in the shorter work day that appeals to every workingman whether he belongs to a union or not, or whether he is class conscious or not, and it is this something which gives vitality to that issue and power to the movement that stands for it and fights to realize it for the workers.

Everything that is of interest to the workers in their struggle to better their condition should appeal to the revolutionary movement. Indeed, the only way to make the movement truly revolutionary is to make the daily struggle of the workers its own struggle and so thoroughly incarnate and breathe that struggle as to make it not only a necessary and inseparable part of the workers but the very workers themselves in organized and conscious action to throw off the burdens that oppress them and walk the earth free men.

In the past a number of strikes have been precipitated to enforce the eight hour day, notably that as far back as 1886 which resulted in the Haymarket tragedy, but not one of them could bring to bear the power latent in the labor movement of this day and which requires only the right issue to call forth its triumphant demonstration.

The eight hour movement has failed to a considerable extent in the past, for reasons not necessary to discuss at this time. It is sufficient to say for our present purpose that failure to secure the eight hour day has but served to intensify the demand for it, and it appears quite certain that a nation-wide campaign, vitalized by the spirit of the revolutionary movement, would develop amazing proportions and spontaneous power, bring millions of workers into closer touch and better understanding, awaken them to the identity of their interests, and promote their industrial and political unification.

Of course, it is to be understood that the eight hour work day is to be established without any decrease of wages. That this can be done is so self-evident that it need not be argued here. All the workers are in favor of this step, all organized labor can be readily committed to it, and if the movement is rightly organized and the campaign properly directed and energetically pressed all over the country the eight hour work day can be uniformly established in American industry and its triumphant inauguration will add great impetus to the industrial movement of the workers and mark a new era in their struggle for emancipation.