It was on this day in 1862 that the newly formed National Labor Union called upon Congress for the first time to establish the eight-hour work day. The United States had been a country mostly of farmers until the early 1800's, and farmers based their working hours on the season, and the number of hours of sunlight they had each day. It was only after American workers began moving to the cities to take factory jobs that they began to demand more regulated working schedules. Many workers were forced to work between ten and sixteen hours a day, six days a week, with no paid holidays or vacations.
The slogan for the movement to get an 8-hour workday was "8 Hours Labor, 8 Hours Recreation, 8 Hours Rest." There were huge demonstrations and labor strikes throughout the 1870s and the 1880s in support of the eight hour workday. 100,000 workers went on strike in New York City to get the eight hour workday in 1872. In 1886, 80,000 people marched down Michigan Avenue in support of the eight hour workday in Chicago. That same year, 350,000 workers went on strike nationwide in support of the same cause. But after a strike led to violence at the McCormick Reaper Manufacturing Company, and the subsequent Haymarket Square Riot, the government chose to suppress labor activism, rounding up labor leaders and arresting them.
It wasn't a labor leader who helped bring the eight-hour work day into the mainstream. It was Henry Ford. When most other factory owners had their employees working more than fifty hours a week, Henry Ford mandated that his employees work only five eight-hour days a week, because he believed that employees with a little time on their hands would be better consumers, and therefore better for business.
The eight-hour workday didn't become federal law until 1933, when Congress enacted the National Industrial Recovery Act, which provided for the establishment of maximum hours, minimum wages, and the right to collective bargaining. Then, with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, American workers were guaranteed overtime pay for hours worked above 40 per week.
At the time those laws were passed, most sociologists predicted that Americans would work steadily fewer and fewer hours. But in fact, the opposite has happened. Today, more than 25 million Americans work more than 49 hours each week. And 11 million spend 60 hours or more at work each week. Americans also take fewer vacation days than employees in any other industrialized nation.