On June 6, 1835, coal workers in Philadelphia walked off the job for shorter hours and higher wages. This soon spread across the city and 20,000 workers struck. One of the first major strikes in American history and probably the first general strike in American history, the Philadelphia movement is one of the first to change labor conditions for American workers. It was a limited victory in terms of permanently shortening hours for all workers, but it absolutely helped lay the groundwork for the movements to come.
In early America, the standard working hours were sunrise to sunset. This could fluctuate depending on the needs of the employer, especially those using slaves on southern plantations, But this was the standard. It came from the history of agricultural labor, which most workers had grown up with, even though they now labored in the growing cities of the United States. Of course, this meant massively different hours during the year. The winter would not see so much work but the summer could easily see 15 hour days. On the farms, one could see why this was necessary, but in the cities, the argument made little sense. Shorter hours in the winter might due to the lack of illumination, though the rise of the whaling industry took care of some of that. But why work 15 hour days in June?
So by the 1820s, workers began to articulate the need for set working hours standards. Some began to strike. Usually, the ten hour day was the preference at this time. In Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, strikes began to happen over this from time to time. In 1825, Boston workers struck for the 10 hour day. In 1827, about 600 Philadelphia journeymen carpenters struck for the 10 hour day, though didn’t really go anywhere. Boston workers did this again in 1832. But none of these were successful strikes.
In 1834, Philadelphia workers created the General Trades Union. This was an early attempt to form a real union that would combine workers from different fields for common interests. This was not the first time they attempted to build such an organization, but this time it would have a bit more sticking power and would make a critical difference in the coming struggle.
In 1835, Boston carpenters started another round of strikes for the ten hour day. This time, they sent organizers to other cities to try and raise a greater action. Seth Luther, the pioneering Rhode Island organizer who later lost his mind and was arrested for robbing a bank in the name of James K. Polk, led this movement. He and his fellow workers put out a statement reading “We have been too long subjected to the odious, cruel, unjust and tyrannical system which compels the operative mechanic to exhaust his physical and mental powers. We have rights and duties to perform as American citizens and members of society, which forbid us to dispose of more than ten hours for a day’s work.”
Now, the Boston movement was once again defeated. But these organizers and statements had a big impact on workers in Philadelphia. This time, rather than the carpenters, it started with the coal workers on the wharves. These were mostly part of the early wave of Irish immigrants. They worked hard jobs for low pay. This kind of fifteen hour day for dockworkers was just inhumane. They weren’t messing around either. When they, influenced by the Boston workers, went on strike for ten hours, their leaders wore a sword and threatened to kill any strikebreakers or anyone trying to unload coal.
This quickly spread. The GTU was ready to go. It had printing presses and it used forms of propaganda to get the message out. The carpenters were among the first to join, but it really had a wide-ranging impact. Building trades such as masons and painters soon joined. But so did textile workers. Even more interesting, so did municipal workers, which may be one of the very first examples of city workers striking. On June 6, a mass meeting took place in which workers declared a general strike. Workers agreed to fight for each other to have shorter hours and higher wages. They agreed to boycott any company that bought coal during the strike. They also agreed to fight for higher wages for women, already paid less than men for the same work when it was done and most certainly already forced into jobs that would pay less by defining it as women’s work.
It did not take long for the workers to win this strike. That was because of the municipal workers. The city government caved almost immediately for those workers, giving them the ten hour day on June 8. Technically it was a twelve-hour day, from 6 to 6, but it gave a full hour break for two meals. That set the foundation to expand it through the city. On June 22, the strike ended after the coal wharves agreed to give it to their workers.
Now, this did put Philadelphia employers at a disadvantage. So the city urged a more national adoption of the ten-hour day. Workers wrote to Andrew Jackson for federal action on the issue. It read, in part, “The Committee are sure that if the example is set in Philadelphia it will be [illegible] required in other places and they will not attempt to disguise the pleasure it would give them as Citizens and as Workingmen to see a reformation taking place under the auspices of the Government.” Word of this victory spread through the nation. For a lot of urban workers, the ten hour day was won at this time, though not in Boston, where employers continued to be reprehensible. But especially around the rest of New England and New York, a lot of workers won that ten hour day.
The next year, the GTU, which had mostly avoided organizing unskilled workers or the Irish (which were largely the same workers), came to the aid of the coal workers when the latter struck again for higher wages. The mayor intervened on the side of the employers, had a bunch of organizers arrested, and had their bail set for an obscene $2,500 (in 1835 money!) in order to bust it. But the GTU came to their aid, welcomed them into their union, paid their legal bills, and celebrated when the workers were found not guilty.
Now, the ten hour day victories were hardly permanent. The Panic of 1837 would kill the GTU and give employers back a lot of what they had given up. But in some fields, the successes would be more lasting, even if no one remembered how this had happened. Moreover, what this movement did was basically kill the idea of the sunup to sundown work day. At the very least, workers expected to be given a consistent hours schedule that had nothing to do with the sun. But in new industries–steel, rail, the larger textile plants–it would take another century to achieve a shorter workday.
This is the 484th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.