Chicago’s Eight-Hour Movement of 1886.

Created by: Olivia Price
Time Period: 19th Century, Gilded Age
Topic: Industrialization and Labor

May Day Protest: May 1, 1886

During the middle and late-1800s, blue-collar employees in cities around the country campaigned for an eight-hour limit on work days.  These labor protests began specifically in Chicago during this time because of rapid growth in manufacturing, demand for factory workers, and resulting population growth that led to conflicts among the working class in downtown areas. The Eight hour movement happened during a time of intense job competition and increased tensions between Protestants, Catholics, and immigrant groups from Ireland, Germany, and Eastern Europe. This led to frequent displays of violence, and people in the middle/upper class feared that protests would continue to escalate and that society would be vulnerable to anarchy. 

Library of Congress

Around the 1870s Catholics immigrating from Ireland, the existing strong Protestant traditions of Chicago’s working class, and pressures from the elite and religious leaders for a moral revival among the poor contributed to religion being central to urban life in downtown areas. In addition, this boom in urban growth led to the middle and upper class away from the city, leaving the working class isolated and divided by language and religious barriers. The main areas of tension in society during this time occured between Protestants, Catholics, gangs, and police, and violence became a direct product of labor unrest in cities throughout the country. Leaders of the labor movement found that in order to make concrete progress in labor reform, specifically for an eight hour work day, they would need to appeal to the religious culture of the urban community.

During the 1886 campaign, after a massive influx of Irish and German immigrants, the EHM split into three distinct factions; the CTLA (formerly the CTA), the Knights of Labor, and the Central Labor Union. Because of the clergy’s lack of support for the EHM and the legislative failures, the CTLA, mostly consisting of native Protestants, restructured their approach to the protests. During the 1886 movement, the CTLA was less explicitly religious. The leaders still used some religious language because the culture of the working class was still extremely important to appeal to, but instead centered their argument on economic grounds, and were suspicious of political or legislative approaches because of their infectivity during the 1867 campaign. The (mostly Catholic, but becoming more diverse) Knights of Labor continued to focus on the movement as a religious effort. They used biblical stories to emphasize their work ethic and virtue, opposing the clergy’s viewpoint that by asking for limited work hours, the lower class was lazy and immoral. The Central Labor Union, one of the more prominent groups of radicals in the EHM, took a completely different approach to the idea of reform. Made up of mainly Germany and Eastern European radical free-thinkers (anarchists and socialists), the CLU believed that the EHM was part of a larger process of overthrowing the industrial structure and capitalism as a whole. Though they completely opposed religious institutions, the CLU saw their fight for individuals’ rights as a form of ‘true Christianity.’

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Boyer, Paul. Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920. Harvard University Press, 1992.

Carter, Heath W. “Undefiled Christ” in Union Made : Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Accessed April 20, 2019,

Hirsch, Susan. Roots of the American Working Class: The Industrialization of Crafts in Newark, 1800-1860. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.

Mirola, William. “Asking for Bread, Receiving a Stone: The Rise and Fall of Religious Ideologies in Chicago’s Eight-hour Movement.” Social Problems 50, (May 2003): 273-293.

Schneirov, Richard. Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864–1897. University of Illinois Press, 1998.


Posted in .