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Inspiration Monday: The woman who might be responsible for the eight hour workday

Lucy Gonzales Parsons in 1886. Photo: Supplied

Lucy Gonzales Parsons in 1886. Photo: Supplied

Published May 9, 2022

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Durban - Throughout history, there have been people who have received their proverbial flowers long after they have passed.

This fate of not getting the recognition one deserves in their lifetime is often dealt to Black, Asian, and mixed race people.

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One of these ‘hidden figures’ is Lucy Gonzales Parsons. A Black woman, she was born enslaved on a plantation in the US state of Texas in 1851.

Along with her husband, Albert Parsons, a white newspaper editor and former confederate soldier, she became involved in labour organising.

Due to their interracial relationship, the pair were forced to move to the northern states of the US in 1873.

The couple described themselves as anarchists who fought for the marginalised. In 1883, they founded the International Working People’s Association journal.

Parsons and her husband had been organising and protesting for an eight-hour workday when he was executed in 1887 after being accused of having conspired in the Haymarket riot.

The riot was a violent confrontation between the police and labour protesters in Chicago on May 4, 1886.

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The eight-hour workday march had drawn over 80 000 people into the streets of Chicago.

It may sound hard to believe, but before the eight-hour workday, workers toiled for 12 hours a day and even as long as 16 hours.

When you research the people who brought about the working hours of today, you find the mention of nevertheless important figures such as Robert Owen and business titan Henry Ford, yet Parsons goes unmentioned.

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Her prominence stemmed from the radical views she expressed as she went on a speaking tour.

In a speech she gave in 1886, Parsons said: “Do you wonder why there are anarchists in this country, in this great land of liberty, as you love to call it? Go to New York. Go to the byways and alleys of that great city. Count the myriads starving; count the multiplied thousands who are homeless.

“Number those who work harder than slaves and live on less and have fewer comforts than the meanest slaves. You will be dumbfounded by your discoveries, you who have paid no attention to these poor, save as objects of charity and commiseration.”

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The activist was arrested numerous times for her speeches and writings, which were described as being inflammatory and said to incite violence.

“The strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production,” said Parsons.

In 1892, she founded Freedom, a newspaper that focused on issues of labour organising and the lynching of Black people.

Parsons made history in 1905 when she was the only woman to speak at the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

She also edited the Liberator, an anarchist paper that was in solidarity with the IWW.

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