The Eight-Hour Workday

Railroad workers were upset. They were required to work long hours for which they received no extra compensation. Led by Austin Garretson, the president of the railway conductor’s union, four railroad unions threatened to strike. Garretson was opposed to extreme measures, such as violence to win concessions, but he believed strongly in the right to strike.

Garretson was of strong Christian faith and considered to be someone who the railroads could reach agreement on tough issues. His union was thought to be the most conservative union in America. He was considered the person who could win a fair treatment of railroad workers’ hours.

Working with Representative William Adamson of Georgia, Garretson was able to gain passage of the first federal law that reflected the hours of workers. The eight-hour workday was born, although it only applied to the four labor unions. Also, included in the Act was how overtime should be paid.

The railroads refused to comply with the law, known as the Adamson Act. They claimed that it was unconstitutional. The unions began to prepare for a strike due to the delays in getting a Supreme Court decision. President Wilson intervened when he got the railroads to agree to the law even without a Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court released its opinion one day after the railroads’ concessions.

Other railroad unions wanted the same rights and again the President had to intervene to avoid a strike.

The Adamson Act was passed in 1916. While the eight-hour workday seems like one of the least controversial public policies, it wasn’t until 1938 that the workday provisions provided to railroad workers became available to all employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

We often take for granted basic rights without realizing the challenges it took for these rights to be earned. More often than not, these rights are earned through the efforts of moderate leaders who oppose extreme measures to gain basic rights. All of us owe a lot to those whose calming influence leads to breakthroughs that make all our lives better.

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“People will work eight hours a day for pay, 10 hours a day for a good boss, and 24 hours a day for a good cause.”– Josh Maxwell (leadership author)


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