On International Workers’ Day, We’re Still Fighting for the Eight-Hour Day

In 1886, workers came together on the original May Day to demand an eight-hour day. Today, from Starbucks stores to Amazon warehouses, that struggle continues.

At companies like Amazon, workers are still fighting for the eight-hour workday today. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images)

“Amazon workers are fighting for the things we fought for one hundred years ago,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flights Attendants–CWA and a leader of the US labor movement’s left wing, at a rally for Amazon workers on Staten Island last Sunday.

Nelson was referring to Amazon’s warehouse-work scheduling practices, which entail ten- or twelve-hour shifts as well as mandatory overtime during “peak season,” the period around the holidays when customers order more items than ever from Amazon and the company brings on additional temporary workers.

At the time of the first May Day demonstration, twelve- and even sixteen-hour workdays were the norm, leaving the working class with little time for what they pleased. On May 1, 1886, the date that would become known as International Workers’ Day, three hundred thousand workers across the United States demonstrated in a unified demand for an eight-hour day.

Chicago was the heart of the movement, with forty thousand workers walking off the job to join the demonstrations. The actions built over several days. On May 3, police attacked and killed locked-out steelworkers at the McCormick Reaper Works plant — labor leaders called for a protest against the violence the following day in the city’s Haymarket Square. When a bomb was thrown into that crowd, police opened fire. The events provided a pretext for the arrest of eight anarchists, who were then convicted of murder, with four of them hanged on November 11, 1887. The Haymarket affair transformed the date into a class holiday: International Workers’ Day.

US workers eventually won the fight to make eight-hour days the standard, but over time that win eroded. While one still sometimes hears that if you love the weekend, you have unions to thank for it, for many workers weekends no longer exist, if they ever did. From Amazon and the food-manufacturing industry to the world of entertainment and the service sector, workers are scheduled according to what employers deem most profitable and efficient, regardless of their desires.

At many workplaces, this means last-minute scheduling, a just-in-time model applied to the labor force. Many food-service and retail workers receive the coming week’s schedule on a Sunday evening, leaving little time to coordinate childcare or make plans for doctor’s appointments and the like. While some locales, such as New York City, have passed legislation to mandate employers provide schedules in advance and offer premium pay for scheduling changes, in much of the country, scheduling stability is nonexistent, leaving workers to build their lives around the whims of their bosses.

At Amazon’s LDJ5 sorting center, outside of which Nelson was speaking and where workers just finished voting on whether to become the second Amazon facility to unionize with the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU), the issue is not too much work but not enough — workers say 80 percent of the center’s employees are part-time, even though many would prefer full-time hours. The company rejects the requests, often repeatedly, bringing in other workers when its algorithm deems it efficient. Such forced part-timing is by no means unique to Amazon, leading workers across industries to cobble together a living with second and third jobs.

Rather than being separate issues — too much work for some, and too little for others — the issue is one and the same: a lack of control over one’s hours. As Karl Marx describes the relationship between overwork and under- or unemployment in Capital, “The overwork of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of the reserve while, conversely, the greater pressure that the reserve by its competition exerts on the employed workers forces them to submit to over-work and subjects them to the dictates of capital.”

In this respect, too, Nelson’s statement about Amazon employees waging a fight that was waged a century ago is right: two years into the pandemic, one of the key issues moving workers into collective action is the struggle over the working day.

As the labor market tightened during the pandemic, some employers chose to impose mandatory overtime on existing workers rather than lay out the cash and benefits required to sufficiently staff up. Long work weeks, at times stretching to eighty hours, helped push food-manufacturing workers at Nabisco and Frito-Lay to strike in 2021. Similar frustration led Kellogg’s employees off the job: some of the workers had twelve- and even sixteen-hour days, seven days a week. Roughly sixty thousand film and television workers, IATSE members, came unprecedentedly close to a nationwide strike over the same issue, pushed to the brink by workdays that extend long enough to make drowsy driving a regular occurrence in the industry.

With many workers relying on overtime to pay their bills, the demand for shorter hours is inescapably entwined with the need for livable wages. As one recent study finds, many of the country’s largest corporations still pay the majority of their workers less than $15 an hour, and the federal minimum wage sits at $7.25 an hour, an amount that hasn’t budged since 2007. That must change. While Samuel Gompers, the first AFL-CIO president, said of the fight for the eight-hour day, “However much they may differ upon other matters . . . all men of labor . . . can unite upon this,” until wages are sufficiently high, workers will either turn to overtime or second and third jobs to make ends meet, preventing unification behind the demand for less work and more time for living.

Under the pressure of post-COVID labor scarcity, wages for many US workers have been rising — if nowhere near enough to make up for decades of stagnation — and a movement is afoot, if still in its earliest stages, to organize companies where unions have little, or zero, presence. Starbucks workers continue building momentum: more than two hundred of the company’s roughly nine thousand corporate-owned stores have filed for National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections, and forty have won such votes. The NLRB, while still severely underfunded and thus too slow in its handling of the company’s flagrantly illegal union-busting campaign, is as pro-worker as it has been since the 1930s, and has now sued Starbucks to reinstate illegally terminated workers.

Amazon, too, has become ground zero for a working-class offensive. The company has long been an anti-union stronghold even as many other warehouses are unionized — in keeping unions out, both for warehouse workers and in its delivery operations, Amazon has driven down wages and working conditions elsewhere while pioneering sadistic algorithmic management and high turnover. That the ALU has organized JFK8, a Staten Island warehouse, is an important start — should the efforts spread to other warehouses, either with the ALU or other unions, it will be a breakthrough of enormous significance (and there is little way to imagine the ALU winning a strong contract at JFK8 without such momentum). The company is the United States’ second-largest employer and, in many ways, the pacesetter for working conditions across industries; the excitement building around unionizing Amazon is a sea change in the labor world.

The unionization rate in the United States has not risen during the pandemic: it sits at 10.3 percent. In the private sector, it is a mere 6.3 percent. The working class remains disorganized, and with that disorganization has come continued employer offensives. Dictatorial control of the workplace includes power over the structuring of workers’ days, but recent fights to reclaim control over one’s time, both among unionized workers and by the likes of Amazon’s sprawling workforce, pose a challenge to that arrangement. What first made the labor movement in the United States, the cause of the first International Workers’ Day, may yet remake it once more.