Sat. Apr 20th, 2019

One hundred years of the eight-hour workday

One hundred years of the eight-hour workday


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On April 3, 1919, a Royal Decree of the Government established in Spain the eight-hour workday, a milestone of the workers' movement, the fruit of the success of a strike of almost two months initiated by the workers of the electric company of Barcelona known as La Canadian, which threatened to spread throughout Spain. It was promulgated by the President of the Government at that time, Álvaro Figueroa Torres, Count of Romanones, who signed the decree, recognized the unions as valid interlocutors for labor negotiation and, incidentally, made Spain the first European country to officially recognize this right.

One hundred years later, the eight-hour day is still in force and many people are asking if labor demands have stalled. The unions have been demanding the implementation of the 35-hour day for several years, although at the moment this has only been achieved in some public bodies.

The signature of that decree opened the doors to the rationalization of work days, that could be extended until 4 pm in the worst cases. But this achievement was not easy to achieve in the convulsive beginnings of the 20th century. Everything had been preceded by a strike that lasted 44 days and caused the total paralysis of the Catalan capital and 70% of the business network in the region, as well as causing the arrest of more than 3,000 workers and clashes between trade unionists and police officers, which ended with numerous victims.

The trigger for the mobilization was the strike that took place in the main electricity production company in Catalonia (Fecsa), known as La Canadiense, when it changed the working conditions of the eight workers of its billing staff. With the demand to fully comply with their working hours, their salaries were lowered and the workforce exploded. Faced with their protests, the company reacted negatively and dismissed immediately the eight workers affected by the measure. The rest of the staff decided to mainly support their colleagues and made a strike declaration. It was February 5. The next day, the company decided to lay off 140 more workers. It was the definitive trigger for the protest to spread like wildfire throughout the industrial zone of Barcelona.

And a seemingly local protest ended up becoming a general strike that put the government of the nation on the ropes, that faced the look that events were taking, decided to act.

General strike

The mobilization had been joined by the workers of the public transport, trains and trams, and those of water, gas and electricity companies, in addition to the companies of the textile sector, real engine of the Catalan industry of the time. The Government tries to control the streets, mobilizes all the available police and civil guards and removes the Army. But the protest is unstoppable. There are several street clashes that end in fatalities, which only aggravate and complicate the situation.

After 44 days of strike, the Spanish Government presided over by count Romanones decides to close the crisis. It approves the royal decree that officially establishes the eight-hour working day throughout the national territory and recognizes for the first time trade unions as valid interlocutors for any future negotiation of workers. It was April 3. In the middle of the month, on the 17th, those imprisoned by the confrontations in the streets are released, the strikers are readmitted without reprisals and the eight dismissed workers return to their jobs. They managed to get La Canadiense to pay half of the lost strike days, another unprecedented event until then, but the jackpot turned out to be the official application of the eight-hour day.

Since then, this achievement -of which there were already precedents in New Zealand, Australia or the United States, but only in factories or specific guilds- was spreading all over the planet until our days.

An industrial origin

The Industrial Revolution provoked one of the greatest economic and social leaps in the history of Humanity until that moment. He created a new social class, the worker, definitively fired the power of the bourgeoisie and changed the world. In the early days, the labor of the factories suffered a real exploitation, with days that could be extended until 16 hours, six days a week. It was a Scottish industrialist, Robert Owen, who opted for the eight hours of work in his factories in New Lanark, which made his workers privileged of the time. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the United Kingdom did not grant the working day ten hours, but did so only for women and children. In 1848, France ordered an ordinance of 12 hours, and thanks to this, it managed to standardize it in the rest of the developed countries. Wellington, capital of New Zealand, was the first city to establish eight hours in 1840, although it only applied to the carpenters' guild.

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