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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

Ira Steward
(March 10, 1831–March 13, 1883)

(7 March 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 13, 7 March 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Connecticut-born, Ira Steward at the age of nineteen went to work as an apprentice machinist, working twelve hours a day. One year later his bosses fired him for his peculiar views, to wit: twelve hours a day was too long a working day.

What is more, Ira Steward was outspoken about his views to which he added the additional “peculiar” twist that eight hours a day was more than enough for a working man. And that, in the 1840’s and 50’s, was indeed a “peculiar” proposal.

Steward and the 8-Hour Movement Were One

To the cause of the shorter work-day, Steward devoted the rest of his life. Indefatigably, he pressed the shorter day, sparing himself not at all, with the result that the movement in the United States for the ten and eight hour days was, properly speaking, one and the same with his life and activity. During his lifetime he served as organizer and president of the Boston 8-Hour League and the National 10-Hour League, as well as active participant in other labor organizations.

A delegate to the convention of the International Union of Machinists and Blacksmiths which met in Boston in 1863, he proposed and obtained the passage of a resolution calling for the 8-hour day – the first such resolution adopted in the United States by an important labor body. Thereafter, constantly agitating, speaking, propagandizing, his proposals secured an ever widening basis of support.

It was largely through his efforts that the first effective 10-hour law was passed in Massachusetts. And later, when the 10-hour day had by no means yet become established practice even formally, it was through the tireless efforts of Steward and his co-workers that the 8-hour day was accepted by various localities and industries, if only in limited application.

Shorter Work-Day Not An End in Itself

Eventually, the fight for the shorter work-day became part of the program of every trade union and social reformer. With Steward, however, the shorter work-day was not an end in itself. For him it was the focal point of an attack on the whole system of capitalist society. Shorter hours would result in higher wages; higher wages would compel improvements in technique, and would give the workers an ever increasing share in the national income of the country; the progressive reduction of working time would allow for the absorption of all unemployed workers, thus keeping wage levels high; and in time the workers would be in a position to buy out the capitalists and institute socialism.

Today, in the light of working class experience and the teachings of the great socialist leaders, Steward’s program was, to say the least, inadequate. As a program for overthrowing capitalism it bordered on the ridiculous; it nowhere fully considered the process of capitalist overthrow, and certainly overlooked the detail of boss unwillingness to yield power.

But, in a general and very one-sided way, it did nevertheless posit the absolute necessity for the working class to fight for better economic conditions and indicated the trend of capitalist society towards concentrated production and improvement of technique – essential economic bases for the future socialist society. These are now accepted facts; in those days they were novel and significant. Especially so, since at the time he worked, it was a popular opinion among many of the so-called socialists that it was futile to ask for higher wages because these could not be won under capitalism.

Urged Organization of the Unskilled

Beyond his specific philosophy of social change, Steward’s activities contributed considerably to the early inculcation of socialist ideas in the American labor movement. Hardly a pioneer of American socialism in the strictest sense (he had been preceded by Joseph Weydemeier and scores of others), many “firsts” are associated with his name. His work was perhaps more fruitful than that of most in establishing the identity of labor’s economic struggles with the ultimate socialist goal.

In a day when the trend of labor organization was directed towards the skilled workers, he urged the organization of the unskilled. With members of the First (Marx’s) International in the United States he founded in 1876 the International Union of Labor – the first really sizeable move towards organizing the unskilled workers.

Steward’s writings were few. Works that he planned remained unfinished at the time of his death. But in his speeches, in the articles he wrote for various journals, above all in the movements he created or helped build, we have a record of an important period in American labor’s fight for better conditions and emancipation – one in which Ira Steward served as leader and teacher.

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Last updated: 28 November 2015