While calls for an eight-hour workday amplified nationally, Florida employers continued to justify 12-plus hour days, especially for working people engaged in physically challenging, hazardous mill and factory work. In the 1870s, Florida’s lumber industry was a significant driver of the state economy, and port cities like Jacksonville were its hubs. Black Floridians comprised most of the lumber workforce and nearly all of its so-called unskilled laborers.

Dissatisfied, Black members of the Labor League union at 20 major lumber mills in North Florida attempted to negotiate a daily minimum wage and a 10-hour workday with local employers, citing an unequal balance of people and profits and “unreasonable and oppressive” working hours [1]. The strike failed, as an economic recession in 1873 tipped the power in employers’ favor. The employers quickly replaced Black workers with white employees struggling to make ends meet.

However, Labor League members were freedmen who could vote, and the Legislature took notice. The following year, legislators mandated a statewide 10-hour workday for men who performed manual labor, with additional daily hours subject to overtime pay. This new policy, inspired by the demands of Black workers, would benefit all men who were engaged in manual labor.

In the details of this law, though, lay a tactic that Florida policymakers still employ — limiting pro-worker laws with exceptions and carve-outs to make them easier on businesses.  Specifically, the new law made it so that if employers drafted contracts that said employed men could work more than 10 hours without overtime pay, it was still legal to underpay those workers (or commit wage theft). Most likely, workers would not have much cause to turn these arrangements down. The law also lacked enforcement provisions beyond the mere mention of “the courts of this State” upholding it. No fines or specific punishments for noncompliance were included, nor were means for workers to file complaints. So, while workers were entitled to such pay in circumstances without a contradictory employment contract, their ability to recover lost wages from their employers remained limited.

Moreover, the 10-hour workday only applied to men. In the late 19th century, both Black women and immigrants of color tended to work whether they were married or not (white women workers were mostly unmarried). Thus, not regulating women’s employment meant that many women of color would work long hours in stressful settings and then go home to work their unpaid jobs, tending to the household. By excluding women from the 10-hour workday, Florida exacerbated racial, gender, and class inequities. It took Florida over 120 years to finally amend the 1874 law to include women in 1997.

  1. Tallahassee Weekly Floridian, 1873, May 27; Jacksonville Tri-Weekly Republican, 1873, April 15.