Home / General / This Day in Labor History: March 19, 1917

This Day in Labor History: March 19, 1917

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On March 19, 1917, the Supreme Court upheld the Adamson Act, passed the year before and which created the eight hour day on the railroad. This was a shocking decision that created the principle of the federal government intervening in the labor conditions of private industry.

Workers had pushed for the eight-hour day going back to the 1880s. The eight-hour day was the rallying point for the Knights of Labor and while it was hardly the only reasons that brief union movement grew, it was a big part of it. In fact, going all the way back to 1860s, there were attempts to provide the 8-hour day to at least some workers, even if early laws were totally unenforceable. But this was a sensible demand for workers.

Railroad workers were so important to the American economy in these years. However, the railroad brotherhoods often failed to work effectively because of their constant fighting with each other and their disdain for any kind of industrial unionism, leading them to, for example, oppose Eugene Debs’ American Railway Union and its solidarity strike with Pullman strikers in 1894. In fact, Debs himself moved toward the industrial unionism after earlier being part of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen and opposing any action during the Great Railroad Strike in 1877. It was a nineteenth century version of unionism that was increasingly hard to fit in the 20th century.

Railroad strike after railroad strike though convinced the government that in order for the economy to flow smoothly, maybe the government should intervene in the industry. In 1915, pressure from below in the railroad brotherhoods forced the leadership to get more aggressive with the employers. They collectively came up with two very simple demands. The first was the eight-hour day. The second was time and a half for overtime after those eight hours. Moreover, the brotherhoods said they would not submit to the pro-employer arbitration board set up in 1913.

The railroads rejected all of this entirely in June 1916. So the brotherhoods publicly announced a strike date of September 4. This would have shut down the nation’s economy. Moreover, no one had any claim that the brotherhoods were some radicals who were going to overthrow the nation’s political system. They were the epitome of respectable unionism.

This was the kind of unionism Woodrow Wilson and a lot of other people soft on economic rights for the working class could get behind. The sad fact is that even if we include the Red Scare and the busting of the IWW during World War I, Wilson is still the best president for unions before Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s not even close actually. He brought organized labor into the government like never before, especially during the war, but even before it. So signing the Seamen’s Act, creating a race to the top in the global conditions for sailors, made sense because these were good respectable workers. It was the same with the railroad brotherhoods. There was a lot of sympathy for them among a wide swath of Americans. The Gilded Age capitalists still had a ton of power in America and they would gain what they lost back in the 1920s, but the 1910s saw a slow chipping away at their power because they were just so unreasonable to compromise.

This all concerned Wilson. The rail carriers were planning to keep the trains running with a few scabs and supervisors, but this was probably unrealistic. So Wilson intervened. He tried to get the two sides together and appealed to both. He supported the eight hour day for them, but thought the overtime pay was too much. Could a compromise develop around that? But both sides refused to give in. So, fearing that a strike would get in the way of the nation preparing to join World War I, Wilson gave a speech to Congress on August 29 to request it pass a bill on his terms. It did. Led by William Adamson, chair of the House Interstate Commerce Committee and a congressman from Georgia, Congress created a bill setting up a federal commission to investigate railroad practices, expanded the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and provided for the eight-hour day. For the first time in American history, Congress passed a law providing limits on labor conditions in a private industry.

The railroads were apoplectic. How dare the government tell them how to treat their workers! Confident that the Supreme Court would toss out such a ridiculous law, the railroads totally refused to abide by it. Everyone wanted the legal side of this settled–the railroads, the brotherhoods, and the administration. So they all agreed to fast track the appeal of the law to the Supreme Court, which heard this case in January 1917. But the brotherhoods made it clear–if the case was overturned, they were going to strike and dare the military to crush it.

They did not have to. On March 19, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, upheld the law. The first major government blow for the eight-hour day was struck. There was so much pressure on the railroads by this point that they actually capitulated on March 18 anyway. Soon after, the rest of the railroad workers not covered by the brotherhoods–which was a lot since they had no interest in organizing outside of their very specific jobs–demanded the same coverage. That was leading to another strike and this after the U.S. entered the war. So Wilson used the Army Appropriations Act of 1916 to see that through.

The eight-hour day would become pretty standard in the U.S. during World War I, though by no means complete. The strikes of IWW members in the Pacific Northwest timber industry over this and other issues forced the government to intervene there too and in doing so, mandated the eight hour day, which mostly lasted after the war. But in other industries such as steel, it would take until the unionization of the industry in the late 1930s to win this. It would come to most workers with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938…..which happens to be the last pro-union bill ever passed in this country.

Government interventions into railroad unionism continue to the present, with Congress passing the Railway Labor Act in 1926 and President Biden using that in 2022 to stop railroad workers from striking over sick leave.

This is the 473rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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