How the 19th Century's Occupy Wall Street Found a Message—and Won

The OWS protests are captivating, disjointed and showing signs of confused frustration -- just like the late-1800's Eight-Hour Day Movement that ultimately led to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.

600 ows greed REUTERS Lucas Jackson.jpg

REUTERS

Corporate greed. Businesses amassing fortunes at the expense of workers. Frustrated, disgruntled, fed up masses. Protests, strikes, and violence.

Think I'm talking about Zuccotti Park? Actually, I'm describing the landscape in the 1880s during the height of the Industrial Revolution, but it sounds eerily familiar. At that time, workers were struggling with horrible work conditions: 14-hour workdays and six day work weeks, children laboring in factories, unhealthy and unsafe work conditions, and low pay.

The workers eventually hit a breaking point. They knew that their work environment was unhealthy and that their lifestyles were unsustainable. They were slaving away and making dismal pay, while the industrialists prospered like never before. They were at the losing end of extreme income inequality. They had a low standard of living, and no time for civic and community participation, due to their long hours. They were the 99% of the 19th century. And they were fed up.

And so, a movement was born. Not an organized, coordinated, political movement, but a messy, multi-pronged, social movement. Laborers took to the streets en masse: protests erupted. Some turned bloody and captured national attention. Into the 20th century, the movement unfolded in fits and starts across the county -- at times loud and active, at other times quiet and dormant. Response from the public and business was mixed. Some unions threw their weight behind the movement, while others did not. The workers didn't have a clear set of policy demands. They didn't coordinate a cohesive messaging strategy. They were fueled by concerns about the mal-distribution of income, dismal working conditions, and their strength in numbers.

But from this inchoate, messy movement emerged a central demand: an eight-hour workday. And so the Eight-Hour Day Movement was born, with the rallying cry, "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will." And ultimately, after many years of somewhat chaotic activity, the movement secured clear results. The federal government passed the Fair Labor Standards Act as part of the New Deal in 1938, securing key protections for the labor force. So in retrospect, we see that these messy, untamed, and complicated protests evolved into a defined demand, which led to a specific policy agenda that ultimately secured federal legislation that protected workers and distributed wealth more evenly.

The similarities to Occupy Wall Street are striking. The sources of the two movements are almost the exact same: People feel the economy is no longer working for them. They see the effects cheap wages and expensive needs. They are frustrated with corporate and governmental irresponsibility. They believe that the country is not on a sustainable track and something significant must change. And the activity in each movement is also similar: Rallies are spreading across the country. Some are resulting in violence. Protestors don't have a concise policy platform or message that they're pushing. It's a messy social movement, once again.

But, if history is any indication, this disorganized inception might be the path necessary to create real, lasting, change. Certainly some Occupy Wall Street protesters are out there solely because they're unemployed and looking for work. But some of them are seeking something bigger, something more substantial: a change in the way we run our economy and treat our citizens. For the Eight-Hour Day Movement, that change was the Fair Labor Standards Act. It remains to be seen what becomes the policy cause of Occupy Wall Street.

Like the Eight-Hour Day Movement, Occupy Wall Street is pointing to the future of what our economy will look like. Protesters around the country are demonstrating that the future they want is based on mutualist solutions: people coming together and pooling their collective resources and skills to get their needs met. Instead of only standing against corporate greed, they are showing us what they support: building a community that takes care of its own, from medical assistance, to libraries, to food. Political action is not the only possible outcome of Occupy Wall Street; we will likely see an emergence of "new mutualism" as an alternative to relying on businesses and government to provide for the people.

For the Eight-Hour Day, as well as with all other labor movements, strength in numbers is what propelled the issue forward. The same applies to Zuccotti Park: their collective voice, no matter how disjointed and lacking in specificity right now, is the needed ingredient to push the country toward a sustainable and balanced solution. This voice of dissent will likely coalesce into a policy platform over time.

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Presented by

Sara Horowitz is the founder of Freelancers Union, a nonprofit organization representing the interests and concerns of the independent workforce.

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