The Scot who helped bring about the eight-hour working day

James Duncan, a granite cutter from the North East, arrived in Paris 100 years ago today to help bring about one of the greatest victories for workers - the eight-hour day

Friday, 18th January 2019, 5:57 pm
Updated Friday, 18th January 2019, 5:58 pm
James Duncan, who was originally from Portlethen in Aberdeenshire, should receive greater recognition for his work in the labour movement, an academic has claimed. PIC: Creative Commons.

Now, academics are calling for greater recognition of Duncan’s achievements in the labour movement given his impact on the way we work and live.

Duncan, from Portlethen in Aberdeenshire, was a former granite cutter who moved to the United States in 1880 as international demand for the stone soared.

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He became an influential figure in the labour movement in New York and rose to become president of the Granite Cutters National Union, settling finally in Baltimore.

While in office, he made the union one of the most effective in the country although his failure to support the civil rights movement for African Americans has also formed part of his legacy.

Given the success of the Granite Cutters National Union, Duncan was asked to join a delegation to Russia in the wake of the Revolution.

He was then invited to attend the Paris Peace Treaty, which began on January 18, 1919, where delegates sought to build a new world order in the aftermath of the Great War.

While many of the ideas of peace set out in Paris subsequently failed, the conference paved the way for the introduction of international measures to regulate hours of work and the principle of the eight hour day – something which remains in place today.

Recognition of Duncan’s role in the negotiations is long overdue, according to Neil McLennan, a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Aberdeen.

Mr McLennan said Duncan must have acquitted himself well in Russia as two years later he was invited to the talks in Paris.

He added: “These were high level discussions bringing together delegates from countries which had until very recently been enemies in the largest conflict the world had ever seen.

“The Paris Peace Treaty set the foundations for the Treaty of Versailles which sadly did not meet its objectives of peace but where it was very successful was in establishing the International Labour Organisation to promote workers’ rights, something which still remains in place today.”

While Duncan helped improve the rights of workers, he did not support rights for all with reports of black granite cutters being fired in favour of the appointment of white workers.

Mr McLennan said: “While Duncan can be seen as a champion for the rights of workers, it is clear that these rights did not extend to all. Workers’ rights were not applied equally across the racial divide in countries including America.

“For a man so committed to workers’ rights, Duncan’s own position on African American workers being part of unions would not sit well today.

“The fact that these principles he fought so hard to establish were not applied equitably even in the US after the Paris Peace Treaty can be used to explore important issues around equality, democracy and international relations in this key period of the 20th century and to reflect upon how this has changed and its lasting legacy.

“Duncan is an important figure in our story of societal change and, now that commemorations for the centenary of the end of the First World War have finished, it is vital that we give the same level of consideration to the subsequent ‘peace’.”