Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day

“Crucial reading ... for all those who have ever punched a clock.”—International Labor and Working Class History
Our Own Time retells the story of American labor by focusing on the politics of time and the movements for a shorter working day. It argues that the length of the working day has been the central issue for the American labor movement during its most vigorous periods of activity, uniting workers along lines of craft, gender and ethnicity. The authors hold that the workweek is likely again to take on increased significance as workers face the choice between a society based on free time and one based on alienated work and unemployment.


  • “This definitive study of the working day shows how workers defined the reality of their lives and reshaped our concept of time.”
  • “This groundbreaking book ... is crucial reading not only for labor historians but for all those who have ever punched a clock.”
  • “Roediger and Foner show us once again that people want to work to live, not live to work.”
  • “Shows that shorter hours captured the imagination and aspirations of the worker not only in his or her role as worker but also as citizen, consumer, leisure-seeker and family member.”


  • Haymarket and Its Context (Part 2)

    Read Part 1 of this May Day excerpt from Philip S. Foner and David R. Roediger's Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day here.

    Set in this context of continuing struggle over the working day, the FOTLU’s decision to press on with its bold 1884 plan to enforce the eight-hour system with a mass strike on May 1, 1886, was not extravagant. The demand was well timed — raised during a depression which made unemployment an issue and maturing during a recovery which made workers readier to strike without fear for their jobs. Of the seventy-eight FOTLU unions polled in 1885, sixty-nine supported the May 1 plan. Working-class militancy meanwhile grew in early 1886 as the Knights of Labor led the Southwest strike against Jay Gould’s railroad empire and attracted hundreds of thousands of new members.

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  • Haymarket and Its Context (Part 1)

    In celebration of May Day, we present an excerpt from Philip S. Foner and David R. Roediger's Our Own Time: A History American Labor and the Working Day. Read Part 2 here.

    (Strikers outside Eddy Bros. Mill in Bay City, MI. Via Bay-Journal

    Albert Parsons. August Spies. Adolph Fischer. George Engel. Michael Schwab. Samuel Felden. Oscar Neebe. Louis Lingg. The names of the victims of the governmental violence which took place after a bomb exploded in Chicago’s Haymarket Square during the unprecedented strike wave of May 1886 deserve pride of place in any account of the movement for a shorter working day during the 1880s. But the very nature of the Haymarket events, with all the excitement and heroism that surround them, has somewhat overshadowed other important considerations in understanding the period and Haymarket itself. This chapter describes Haymarket and its relationship to a continuing tradition of class struggle over hours, to the interaction between skilled and unskilled works, to ethnic interplay in the labor movement, and to the development of new organizational forms.

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  • Labor in White Skin: Race and Working-class History

    This essay was first published in The Year Left Vol. 3: Reshaping the US Left: Popular Struggles in the 1980s, edited by Mike Davis and Michael Sprinker, and published by Verso in 1988. It was later reprinted in Roediger's Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History.

    The reality, the depth, and the persistence of the delusion of white supremacy in this country causes any real concept of education to be as remote, and as much to be feared, as change or freedom itself. What Black men here have always known is now beginning to be clear to the world. Whatever it is that white Americans want, it is not freedom — neither for themselves nor for others.

    ‘It’s you who'll have the blues,’ Langston Hughes said, ‘not me. Just wait and see.'

    James Baldwin (1980)[1]

    Despite the fact that the nineteenth century saw an upsurge in the power of the laboring classes and a fight toward economic equality and political democracy, this movement . . .  lagged far behind the accumulation of wealth, because in popular opinion labor was fundamentally degrading and the just burden of inferior peoples . . . It was bad enough to have the consequences of [racist] thought fall upon colored people the world over; but in the end it was even worse when one considers what this attitude did to the European worker. His aim and ideal was distorted. . . . He began to want not comfort for all men but power over other men. . . . He did not love humanity and he hated 'niggers'.

    W.E.B. DuBois (1946)[2] 

    “Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded.”[3] That line from an 1866 letter to François Lafargue, and repeated in Capital, is perhaps the most quoted of Karl Marx’s observations about the United States. But the work of our labor historians, past or present, has done little to illuminate why Marx's aphorism not only has the ring of truth but that of a ringing truth, though one Marx did not pursue much in later years.

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Other books by Philip S. Foner and David R. Roediger