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A Hard-Earned Break: How The Weekend Was Won

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The relentless efforts of labor unions won American workers the weekend.

By Mark Colangelo

As Memorial Day approaches, millions of Americans are looking forward to a three-day weekend filled with barbecues, relaxation, and reflection. This well-deserved break, which today we take for granted, was not always guaranteed. The weekend was a hard-won union victory. As we kick off summer, we’re taking a moment to examine how the weekend became a cornerstone of American life.

The Harsh Reality of Life Before Unions

Before the rise of the unions, the work week was unimaginably grueling. Factory workers and other laborers endured 10 to 14-hour days, six or seven days a week. The mental and physical toll was immense— injuries and deaths were commonplace, there was no time for family or friends, and the prospect of self-betterment was a pipedream. If you were a worker before unions, life was bleak.

The Eight-Hour Day Movement

The eight-hour day movement began gaining steam in the late 1800s. The movement's powerful slogan, "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will," echoed across the nation. The cause was taken up by pioneering labor unions like the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Knights of Labor, who advocated for better working conditions and fair wages, along with 8 hour day. The movement faced brutal suppression from employers, but as with today’s labor unions, their resolve never wavered.

The weekend off for private pursuit and replenishment has not always been the accepted given it is today. We can thank unions for having these two days free every week.

Key Victories Enshrined The Weekend

The first major win came with the Adamson Act in 1916. This groundbreaking legislation established an eight-hour workday for railroad workers, setting a precedent for other industries. Spearheaded by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and backed by President Woodrow Wilson, this act was a crucial step towards cementing the right to a weekend. Bolstered by the success of railway workers, laborer unions in other industries began fighting to secure these rights for workers everywhere.

The Fair Labor Standards Act

The crowning achievement in securing the right to a weekend came with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, a cornerstone of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. This landmark law standardized the 40-hour work week, effectively cementing the two-day weekend for American workers. By limiting the work week and ensuring that overtime was fairly compensated, the FLSA guaranteed workers had time for rest and personal pursuits. This victory improved the lives of workers everywhere. It would not have happened without the tireless voice of unions in advocating for workers.

Looking for an argument in support of labor unions? Fire up the grill and crack open a cold one. Enjoy the freedom to forget about work for a couple of days as you savor time with friends and family. Relish the chance to rest and recharge. Remember, without labor unions, none of this would be possible. Enjoy the long weekend.

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Mark Colangelo is a writer and blogger.

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