The 8 Hour Work Day Battle and May Day in Grand Rapids

It is easy for us in the present to take for granted the 8 hour work day. However, organized labor spent decades fighting this battle all around the world, in the US and right here in Grand Rapids.

The Knights of Labor provided this wonderful anthem that reflected the spirit behind the 8 hour work day:


We want to feel the sunshine;

We want to smell the flowers;

We’re sure God has willed it.Bmk-PaGIQAAopyT

And we mean to have 8 hours.

We’re summoning our forces from

Shipyard, Shop and mill;

8 hours for work

8 hours for rest

8 hours for what we will.

The 8 hour work day struggle is generally connect to the 1886 Haymarket Uprising in Chicago, and rightly so (more on this later). However, the fight for 8 hours came decades before 1886, even in Grand Rapids.

An effort to organize for an 8 hour work day in Grand Rapids was actually adopted for city workers in 1867, but it was repealed the very next year. (The Story of Grand Rapids: A Narrative of Grand Rapids, Michigan, by Z.Z. Lydens)strike

Labor organizers were fighting to win a shortened work day as early as 1881. One can barely make out this clip from the Grand Rapids Daily Eagle, which shows that workers were attempting to fight for a 10 hour work day.

These efforts were eventually fought in a highly organized manner from the capitalist class, with the creation of the Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturers Association, the first of its kind, in 1881. This battle continued for decades and its resistance was most visible in the 1911 furniture workers strike, which, amongst other demands, was fighting for an 8 hour work day. However, there was another roadblock to the shortened work day and it came from the Calvinist immigrants.

According to Michael Johnston’s thesis, Non-Union Grand Rapids: 150 Years of the Big Lie, it was reported in the Grand Rapids Evening Leader, in May of 1886, a group of Hollander furniture workers continued working until after the four o’clock whistle had blown. Asked to explain their reasons for not leaving at the end of an eight hour day, they said they were being paid for overtime work. It was only a coincidence that they were still working after 10 hours. Everyone, including the Hollanders, knew the real reason why they continued to work, yet the incident caused more amusement among the rest of the furniture workers than anger.

However, the struggle for the 8 hour work day continued, despite the efforts of the furniture barons and Dutch immigrants embracing a protestant work ethic.

In 1886, there was threat of a major strike in Grand Rapids, according to the New York Times:

The threatened strike at Grand Rapids is finally averted, and to-day is given up to a holiday there. The employers accept eight hours as a day’s work with a corresponding reduction in wages on all workmen above $1 per day. On this basis an advance of 5 per cent is made, with the promise of as much more in two months. No question is raised over the employers’ announcement that they will run their factories in their own way, employing and discharging whom they please. These matters are expected to adjust themselves.maydaycartoon-lg

However, the 8 hour work day did not continue, unlike the reduction of wages, since the power and deception of the furniture barons knew no bounds.

In addition to the threat of a strike by workers in 1886, Grand Rapids hosted an 8 hour a day/May Day parade in the downtown, only four years after the first May Day parade was held in New York City.

Again, we turn to Johnston’s thesis, Non-Union Grand Rapids: 150 Years of the Big Lie, which sheds some light on the organizing for an 8 hour work day that preceded the May 1886 parade.

The Furniture WorkersProtective Association, under the skillful leadership of Charles Johnston, began agitating for an eight hour day at nine hours pay in March and succeeded in reducing the workday to eight hours a day for several weeks before and then after May 1, 1886. This May Day affair would be the largest labor action in the city prior to the great 1911 furniture strike and one of national significance.”

Johnston notes that all throughout March and leading up to June of 1886, there were efforts to organize walkouts at several Grand Rapids factories, to picket and even use the threat of violence in numerous instances. However, some union presidents advocated against such practices and Johnston cities this as maybe the first instance of where the term “Company Union” was given to the more mainstream unions in Grand Rapids.

However, not all unions adopted such complacent policies and there were plenty of recent immigrants to Grand Rapids who were much more open to socialist and anarchist approaches to organizing in the later part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century. This was in part due to the city’s proximity to Chicago, which was in many ways the center of radical labor organizing.haymarket-riot-hero-AB

Chicago not only was the place of the famous Haymarket Uprising, it was home to numerous militant socialist and anarchist groups that had been organizing amongst workers throughout the city and traveled throughout the Midwest, to places like Grand Rapids. Several of the people who were charged with “inciting violence” at the Haymarket Uprising, like August Spies and Albert Parsons, wrote and spoke frequently throughout the Midwest. August Spies even came to Grand Rapids on more than one occasion to share his views on radical organizing and anarchist politics. For a more detailed discussion of the Chicago/Grand Rapids connection we highly recommend the well researched zine entitled, Mob Work: Anarchists in Grand Rapids Vol. 1, published by Sprout Distro. 

These connections to the more radical labor movement in Chicago certainly is what created the space to even imagine the 1911 Furniture Workers Strike in Grand Rapids. This history should tell us is that there was a rich tradition of fighting for an 8 hour work day, militant unionism and a longer tradition of celebration International Workers Day on May 1, rather than the more business friendly Labor Day celebration in September.

Ten years ago, in the Spring of 2006, an estimated number of roughly 10,000 people marched in Grand Rapids for immigration right, particularly the undocumented worker. Many of those who march were from Latin American countries who still celebrate May Day. It is with the most recent wave of immigrant labor that we might find the seeds of radical organizing, the kind the led to May Day celebrations around the world and in Grand Rapids. Workers of the World Unite!

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One Response to The 8 Hour Work Day Battle and May Day in Grand Rapids

  1. Pingback: From militant strikes to anti-communist purges: the Grand Rapids labor movement after WWII | Grand Rapids People's History Project

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