Aspirations and Anxieties: New England Workers and the Mechanized Factory System, 1815-1850

By David A. Zonderman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
A Time to Labor: Workers, the Workday, and the Ten-Hour Movement

The labor reform movement of the 1840s voiced many criticisms of the factory system and many ideas for correcting these problems. One issue, however, became a focal point for many workers' organizations -- the problem was the long hours of factory labor, and the solution was the campaign for a ten-hour law. This early crusade for labor legislation underlay much of the organizational activity among factory operatives in the mid-1840s, and brought to the forefront a long-standing debate about the hours of labor. The ten-hour movement also raised new and crucial questions about the meaning of politics and citizenship for factory operatives.

Just as with wage labor, workers knew that the hours of labor were more than a matter of minutes and time on a clock. The struggle to regulate the workday was yet another test of power and control in the workplace. Some workers felt that they already had all the freedom they needed to work as long as they needed to make as much money as they needed. Other workers felt that it was imperative for workers to demand an absolute limit on the length of their workday; and, in the campaign for a ten-hour day, these workers introduced another factor into the factory system. The government and the political process became part of the debate over the mechanized factory. Most state legislatures quickly sidestepped any permanent involvement in such delicate matters as labor-management relations, but politics and the workers' fight for some leverage on the shop floor would never be the same as before.


I

The fundamental question of just how long a workday should be had always been a bone of contention among antebellum factory operatives, and between them and their managers. Many new operatives had to adjust to a factory system wherein work was usually regulated by precise measures of time. This emphasis on time was not unique to mechanized factories; many antebellum workplaces were trying to regularize their employees' hours of labor. This desire for a clearly defined workday,

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