This Week in Labor History: Remembering the Adamson Act

by Frank Gattie

“Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”

That slogan was first voiced two centuries ago. Faced with low pay, unsafe conditions, and grueling hours, the work-life balance proposed by early labor reformers became wildly popular with workers at the time.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw workers use the eight-hour day as a rallying cry for protests, strikes, and ultimately, legislation. In coming together and acting collectively, workers made substantial progress in limiting the number of hours spent at work. This week marks an important anniversary in that continuing struggle: The passage of the Adamson Act, just over a century ago.

In August 1916, nearly 400,000 railway workers voted to authorize a strike if an eight-hour day was not implemented. The railroads refused to meet the workers’ demands, and fearing a nationwide rail strike, Congress and President Woodrow Wilson stepped in. On September 2, 1916, Congress passed the Adamson Act. Signed by Wilson the following day, the law implemented a standard work day of eight hours for railway workers across the Unites States.

Already a standard for some workers at the time—various unions and government employees had won the right to an eight-hour day before 1916—the Adamson Act was the first federal law that standardized private-sector employees’ work hours. It was also not the last—the movement for an eight-hour day gained steam in the following decades, culminating in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Instituting a 40-hour work week, the FLSA extended standardized working hours far outside the railroads, and required employers to pay most employees time and half for any hours worked beyond 40. However, it was riddled with exceptions and left out entire swaths of workers. Most notably, farmworkers and domestic workers—racist exemptions that still exist today.

The FLSA has been updated throughout the years, but it has failed to keep pace with the twenty-first century—leaving a growing number of workers behind. Independent contractors, who are not covered by the FLSA, have become a staple of the growing “gig economy.”

The FLSA’s overtime rules also exclude salaried workers who are paid more than $23,660 per year. That salary threshold was increased to $47,476 in 2016 by President Obama’s Labor Department, but it was blocked by a federal judge in Texas and has not been implemented. As a result, millions of salaried workers continue to be left out of federal overtime pay protections, while the share of those workers without overtime protections is increasing. In 1975, more than 60 percent of full-time salaried workers qualified for overtime pay. By 2016, that share had fallen to less than seven percent.

Today, millions of workers can be required to work far beyond 40 hours in a week while receiving no extra compensation for their extra hours worked. In order to keep the eight-hour day from becoming a thing of the past, we must strengthen work time protections to ensure everyone who works can maintain a reasonable and healthy work-life balance.

Remembering the Adamson Act is important because it was a small victory in a struggle that is very much alive today. The eight-hour day is far from won. The labor movement must continue to pressure employers and politicians to do away with policies that promote excessive hours at work. The FLSA should be amended to include all categories of workers, loopholes that allow companies to misclassify employees as independent contractors should be closed, and the Department of Labor should vigorously defend the salary threshold issued in 2016.


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