on the star in the center of the proclamation to see a detailed view. The
so-called Official Eight Hour Song is audible for browsers with the QuickTime
plug-in. For more information, go to Technical Support on the Main
Contents page (click on the link at the top of this page). Click on
the link below the image to load and play the song.
The song was recorded on April 19, 2000, by the class on "The Spontaneous Folk Ensemble" at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, taught by Mark Dvorak. It is performed by Rob Blaha, Kenny Bodle, Peggy Browning, Mark Dvorak, Maura Lally, Edward Mould, Dave Stewart, Amanda Subba Rao, and Kristin Theerman. The recording was coordinated by Benjamin Kanters, with the assistance of engineer Chris Suity, both of Columbia College, Chicago.
In the decades following the Civil War, one goal on which many otherwise very different workers and labor organizations could agree was shorter hourswithout an accompanying reduction in pay. A "typical" workday, to the extent that such a thing existed, was closer to ten hours, usually six days a week. The eight-hour campaign involved not just a specific effort by wage earners to reduce their hours but also a more general attempt to control working conditions.
Advocates of the eight-hour campaign knew that, without some form of collective action or legislation, the goal would be difficult to achieve. The increasing size of industrial establishments made it very hard for the individual worker to set the terms of employment, especially at times marked either by an economic downturn or by an excess supply of people seeking jobs.
Advocates of eight hours argued that reducing the workday would provide employment for more people and perhaps reduce the overproduction that caused slumps and slack periods. Shorter hours would also make for healthier workers, who would have more leisure time as consumers, which would assist the economy. Such reasoning did not impress most employers, who argued for an unregulated economy in which wages and hours found their own "natural" level.
The eight-hour movement in the United States (there was also an active campaign in Europe) had an early symbolic success in 1868, when Congress passed an eight-hour law for federal employees. The image on this page is the elaborate broadside of the National Eight Hour Proclamation, signed in May 1869 by President Ulysses Grant and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. (Click on the star to see the text of the proclamation and the signatures of these two officials.)
There were similar measures on the books in various cities and states. Such laws existed mainly on paper, and in any case they did not apply to the great mass of the population who worked in privately-owned factories and offices, or where, as in Illinois, there was "no special contract to the contrary."
During the depression years of the 1870s, eight hours became a central demand, especially among labor organizers and socialists, with rallies and parades and a network of local Eight-Hour Leagues. Albert Parsons was chosen recording secretary of the Chicago Eight-Hour League in 1878, and, at an 1880 labor conference in Washington, he was appointed a member of a national eight-hour committee.
Like many causes, the movement had a culture of its own, including numerous songs. Of these the most popular was one that appeared in the Labor Standard in July 1878. Based on an 1866 poem written by I. G. Blanchard in the Workingman's Advocate, it was set to music by the Reverend Jesse H. Jones. The lyrics deem current working conditions a violation of God's will and the laws of the creation, which require that humans have time to devote to reflection, communion with nature, and, more generally, the exercise of freedom. The refrain, "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will," sees the division of the day into this triad as inherently and transcendently appropriate.
The rendition here includes the first, second, and third verses. The complete lyrics of the song follow:
We mean to make things over, we are tired of toil for naught,
The beasts that graze the hillside, and the birds that wander free,
The voice of God within us is calling us to stand
Ye deem they're feeble voices that are raised in Labor's cause?
From factories and workshops, in long and weary lines,
Hurrah, hurrah, for Labor! for it shall arise in might;