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Samuel Gompers' Own Account of the Fight for the 8-Hour Day
An eight-hour law had been passed by Congress and signed by President Johnson in 1868. As officials ignored the law, President Grant issued an order directing that its provisions be executed. Various executives "interpreted" the law to mean that a reduction in wages must accompany a reduction in hours. The Secretary of the Navy issued an order to apply this interpretation in all instances. However, it was soon evident that new legislation must be enacted.
As labor men had little money to spend for traveling expenses, whenever possible local labor men in Washington acted for labor throughout the country. Much of the active work in promoting the second eight-hour legislation was done by local people: E. W. Oyster, Paul T. Bowen, and Dyer D. Lum, though Lum later moved to New York. When the Secretary of the Navy's ruling became known, the local Washington men registered a protest with President Johnson and asked him to obtain an opinion on the law from the Attorney-General. This the President did, but the Attorney-General upheld the policy of the War Department. Soon after he became President, General Grant asked Attorney-General Evarts for an opinion on the effect of the law on wages. Evarts' opinion followed closely the ruling of the previous administration – the law did not require wages on a ten-hour basis to be paid for an eight-hour day. Delegations of representative labor men sent protests to President Grant. The situation was the occasion of my first trip to Washington.
A short time afterwards the President issued an executive order directing that no cut in wages should be made because of the reduction in hours due to the eight-hour law. When the executives failed to obey, he characteristically reiterated the order with increased force. The issue got into politics. A committee went to the Democratic Convention which met in Philadelphia and informed the platform committee of the situation as to the eight-hour law. The Democratic committee, apprehensive that whatever credit might come from establishing eight hours would be entirely absorbed by the Republican President and inured to the advantage of the Republican Party, adopted an eight-hour declaration as one of the planks of its platform. Later, the Republican Party Convention adopted a similar plank. When asked for eight hours by law, the law was to apply to government employes. Eight hours in private industry we undertook to establish by direct negotiations.
I became very well acquainted with George E. McNeil and Ira Stewart and familiar with their philosophy of the shorter workday. According to my own understanding the eight-hour day was a revolutionizing force that altered all the workers' relations both industrial and social and raised standards of living and work.
All this served as preparation for my responsibility as president of the Federation in trying to establish eight hours, in industry. As stated in a preceding chapter, I helped to draft the resolution to establish the eight-hour day, May 1, 1886, which was adopted by the 1884 Convention of our Federation. At our Washington meeting in 1885 we outlined our program for the achievement of that object. The Legislative Committee issued a circular letter to employers of labor throughout the country, proposing mutual agreement to the introduction of the eight-hour day.
We proposed that the workers obtain contracts for the establishment of the eight-hour day in all industry. The plan was thoroughly discussed and finally adopted by unanimous vote. At the conclusion of the convention the Legislative Committee conferred for two days in the preparation of the circular letters to employers and to the workers. To supplement the small funds at the command of the officers of our Federation, voluntary contributions were made by us and by many others so that the committee entrusted with the work might have funds with which to carry out the project. It is interesting to know that from a very large number of employers favorable replies were received and their co-operation pledged. From the workers generally came enthusiastic support. Indeed, the eight-hour day declaration of 1884 and the propaganda with which our Federation officials undertook to carry out the program created great interest. It was a slogan which concentrated the united attention of workers upon the achievement of a decisive forward movement in their own interest and in the interests of industry.
In New York the first organized campaign for eight hours since 1872 got under way in the summer of 1885. Some of the veterans of the early movement were our most enthusiastic workers. Our program was strictly economic. Our first step was to send a circular to all unions. This was not a simple matter in those days. Some of the labor papers published partial lists of organizations and by careful collection I made a fairly adequate directory, written by hand. Trade unionists were to hold meetings and to prepare to urge demands for the eight-hour day upon employers. Such meetings were to be followed by conferences with employers in which copies of the following agreement were to be submitted :
Even under most favorable conditions our campaign must have been chiefly valuable as an educational influence. There were then hardly twelve industries in the United States sufficiently organized to establish an eight-hour day. The movement of '86 did not have the advantage of favorable conditions. Also, it had to counter duplicity from the K. of L. Our eight-hour program was officially submitted to the Executive Board of the K. of L. with the request that they co-operate. No official reply was made. The leadership of the K. of L. was not accord with the spirit of the working-class movement.
In February, 1886, W. H. Foster, the secretary of the Federation, sent eight-hour circulars to all labor organizations, asking all to unite in achieving this first step in industrial betterment. Responses were generally cordial. Most of the unions began holding agitation meetings and inaugurated practical programs. There was scarcely a union in New York that did not hold a special eight-hour meeting and follow it by constant educational discussion. The Cigarmakers and the Building Tradesmen made demands for eight hours. Even the street-car drivers who had worked interminable hours demanded twelve as the limit. When T. V. Powderly, the head of the Order, was in New York early in 1886, he gave an interview in which he spoke of the eight-hour day in most glowing terms. That statement was generally interpreted to mean a sympathetic attitude toward our movement. Still, we did not feel sure that we knew what was being done in the inner circle of the K. of L. Our apprehension was confirmed by the statement which Mr. Powderly made in April, "The Knights of Labor do not contemplate making an effort to enforce the eight-hour day at present."
The eight-hour movement of 1886 was general but most aggressive in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Baltimore. Of course, as president of the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions had general information of efforts in different localities. Paul Grottkau of Milwaukee, formerly of Chicago, who had been on a tour through the East in behalf of the movement, told me considerable of the Chicago and Milwaukee plan. Grottkau was an eloquent German speaker. Chicago was the headquarters of the active anarchist group headed by Parsons, Spies, and Schwab. Two anarchist papers were published there – one in English edited by Parsons, The Alarm, the other, Die Flackel, in German, edited by Spies.
We held a series of eight-hour meetings in New York for which we secured popular speakers like Henry George and S. E. Schevitsch. At these meetings the various unions reported progress of the movement in their trades. The Cigarmakers and Furniture Workers were the only organizations that had determined to establish eight hours for their respective industry. The Cigarmakers' Convention had recommended that course, and each local had made the necessary arrangements. We were then generally working nine hours and the reduction was to be made without contest.
May 1, mass meetings were held all over the country. Our May Day meeting in New York was a complete success. All went away strengthened in determination to establish the eight-hour day. That mass meeting was to constitute not the termination of our eight-hour movement but only the end of the first period. The news that came next morning from Chicago indicated the extent of enthusiasm there. Forty thousand men were on strike, the railroads were crippled, and many factories closed. Just as there seemed to be a probability of trade unions being welded together for united resistance to long hours, there came the dynamite bombs at Haymarket Square, Chicago. In a strike at the Harvester Plant in Chicago, a number of men were ruthlessly clubbed and shot down by the police. On the following evening a protest meeting was held in Haymarket Square and was addressed by Spies, Parsons, and Fielden. To that meeting, generally attended by strikers and sympathizers, a large force of police was assigned. After the meeting was in full progress, it was said and never denied, that the officer in charge of the police telephoned to headquarters that the meeting was being conducted peacefully. The Mayor of the city was present during the greater part of the meeting, leaving only when a gathering storm became very threatening. After the Mayor left, and hardly fifteen minutes after the above report was made, a squad of police formed to advance on the crowd. Spies, who was speaking, cried out in protest against disturbing a peaceful meeting. Then a bomb exploded and fifteen policemen were killed. Of course, the meeting broke up in a furor of excitement and the anarchists were arrested on a charge of murder.
This catastrophe, coming so soon after the launching of the new Federation, halted our eight-hour program. It was not until 1888 that the convention again directed that we renew our aggressive campaign. This campaign was to culminate May 1, 1890. It was agreed to hold simultaneous eight-hour meetings throughout the country on July 4, Labor Day, and February 22. I made every effort to concentrate thought and activity on eight hours. The Federation had been preparing educational material – a special eight-hour button and literature. George E. McNeill, wrote an eight-hour primer; George Gunton, The Eight-Hour Workday, Its Economic and Social Advantages; Lemuel Danryid, The Eight Hour Movement, its Philosophy and History. Outside a nominal honorarium, these men received no compensation. The Federation had little literature at the time. We had one important pamphlet, Trade Unions and Their Philosophy, by William Trant. This was an English pamphlet the plates of which P. J. McGuire somehow secured and gave to the Federation. It was a clear-cut analysis of trade unionism and made more impression upon my thinking than any other economic dissertation with the exception of Professor Thorold Rogers' Six Centuries of Work and Wages. After the Federation published Trant's pamphlet, I received an unexpected letter from the author who was then living in Assiniboia, Canada, asking about his royalties! As I had respect for ownership of the products of creative labor whether material or intellectual, the scanty funds of the Federation were drawn on for this demand. This pamphlet remains today (1923) one of the standard publications of the Federation, and will be useful so long as trade unionism endures.
I wrote to practically every labor organization urging agitation for the eight-hour day. Most of these letters were written in long hand. After the Federation secured its Caligraph typewriter, letters were sent to the President of the United States, the Cabinet, forty Senators, seventy-five Representatives, and one hundred economists. My purpose was to create sympathetic understanding for the eight-hour movement and to forestall any association of the movement with anarchistic influences. While the New York office was trying in every way to create enthusiasm we were constantly meeting depressing difficulties. For instance, the mail one morning brought numbers of letters reporting progress and one from William Martin, president of the Steel Workers, resigning from office as second vice-president of the Federation because he could not give time to the eight-hour movement. I was appalled as I vividly forecasted the results of such action on Martin's part. I saw the headlines in the papers, "Steel Workers Desert the Federation." The Steel Workers in those days were one of the strong organizations. I pictured the exultation of our antagonists and put aside my constructive work to convince Martin that his proposed course would be disastrous.
Whenever it was reasonably possible and the funds were available I went to labor conventions occurring during the period of the eight-hour campaign. It was decided to concentrate activity and to establish eight hours for one trade each year, the E. C. to select the one best prepared to secure the shorter work-day each year. Of the several organizations that made application, the Carpenters were designated to be the standard-bearers for 1890.
In the meanwhile, I had had to watch the K. of L. lest they attempt to frustrate our movement as happened in 1886. Early in the year I saw a newspaper statement from Powderly that increased my apprehension. I squelched an incipient rumor that a general strike would be called May 1, 1890, by issuing a circular in which I said: "Nothing is further from our intention than a general strike. The date, May 1, 1890, was fixed in order to concentrate efforts on a certain point. In the present condition of labor, no movement for a general strike would have my support. The end of the labor movement will not come in 1890."
As plans of the eight-hour movement developed, we were constantly realizing how we could widen our purpose. As the time for the meeting of the International Workingmen's Congress in Paris (July 14, 1889) approached, it occurred to me that we could aid our movement by an expression of world-wide sympathy from that congress.
I talked the idea over with Hugh McGregor, who was idealist enough to recognize no practical difficulties. The margin of time intervening was too small to trust a letter of invitation to the mail, so McGregor agreed to act as special courier. He had long experience in traveling on almost nothing. His wants were few and accustomed to all manner of delays in gratification. We discovered that a boat was leaving within a brief time that would just get him to Paris in time. We managed to get enough money for his ticket. McGregor went off to pack his bag with a few things, including a reserve celluloid collar. Meanwhile, I was to write a letter of official invitation and to meet him at the dock. I wrote by hand a letter that seemed to me fraught with historic import and then hurried to the dock to put it in McGregor's custody. A number of labor men had learned of the trip. They hailed me afar, for the boat was on the point of leaving. I thrust the letter into McGregor's hand and joined the farewell shout.
A moment afterwards I recollected that in my hurry I had failed to make a press copy of the letter. Though I tried in many ways to get a copy of that letter I did not succeed. It is the only important official letter of which I did not retain a copy. Later, I made unsuccessful efforts to obtain a copy through French friends.
My letter informed the Paris congress of our American efforts to celebrate the coming May Day by establishing eight hours for the Carpenters and urged them to co-operate. The proposal fell upon the ears of two bitterly warring factions. The German delegation headed by Liebknecht, Bebel, and Singer, opposed the resolution on the ground that under the imperial German government it would be suicide for them to approve the movement. Herr Liebknecht emphatically opposed the proposal on the ground that labor organizations were not strong enough to succeed in the undertaking. Eventually a resolution for an eight-hour demonstration in every country was adopted and there was pretty general observance of the day. That was the origin of European May Day, which has become a regular institution in all European countries.
Sometime after this was accomplished, McGregor returned – when his money was gone. It didn't cost him much to live and it didn't matter to him how he traveled so long as he was contributing something to human struggles for liberty and betterment. But he returned from that trip to Paris with evidences of rejuvenation for which Paris is famous. His beard was cut Lord Dundreary fashion, and he had a set of artificial teeth. But as the teeth later interfered with smoking his corn-cob pipe, they were soon discarded.
The special assessment for the campaign enabled the Federation to render practical assistance in the educational work. We furnished speakers as well as financial assistance. George E. McNeill, Paul Grottkau, and Harry Skeffington were sent on rather extensive lecture tours, as we called our agitation work in those days. I made many short trips in addition to going as far west as Chicago and St. Louis. Other eight-hour speakers were Harry Lloyd, Henry Emerick, Wm. J. Dillor, John McBride, David Boss, J. H. Burrt, J. C. Kilgallon, Wm. H. Kilver, Frank K. Foster, John S. Kirschner, P. F. Fitzgerald, Edward L. Daly, and George Gunton. P. J. McGuire spoke almost continuously. He threw himself into the work with all the enthusiasm and ability that distinguished his leadership.
The Carpenters did their level best to win a complete victory. As their unions throughout the country did not have uniform strength or working standards, it was determined to try for a shorter work-day instead of a uniform eight-hour demand. When carpenters were working ten or more hours and could reasonably expect a nine-hour day but not an eight, nine was made the objective. Practically every Carpenters' union in the country secured some definite betterment of working conditions as a result of the struggle. The results affected 137 cities and benefited 46,197 workers. The total membership of the Carpenters' unions was then about 73,000.
When the Detroit (1890) convention was considering the selection of an organization to make the next campaign, the Miners urged with eloquence and insistence that they were ready and anxious to make the demand for the eight-hour day and to fight for its establishment in the whole trade. The United Mine Workers were operating under an extremely difficult form of organization – part of the organization was secret and affiliated to the Knights of Labor. Under the rules of the Knights, affiliated organizations were not autonomous, but final authority in all matters was vested in the executive – the Master Workman and the Executive Board. The convention, therefore, inquired what assurance the Miners could give that the secret bodies would co-operate in the eight-hour movement. The Miners' delegates stated they had just come from the General Assembly where approval had been given to the proposal. Upon that assurance the Convention approved the selection of the U. M. W. as the next trade to move toward eight hours.
The plan adopted by the Executive Council to finance the movement provided that each affiliated organization contribute two cents per member on or about January 1, 1891, and two cents per member for four additional consecutive weeks if called for during that year. In addition to sending letters and circulars to all affiliated organizations, the president of the A. F. of L. was instructed to make a wide tour of the country to carry a personal message to as many workers as possible. As the Federation was unable to finance such an undertaking, I asked our organizer in Denver, Adam Menche, to act as manager of the trip. He arranged with each central body to bear its proportional share of the expenses of the trip.
On February 2, I left New York City on my first trip to the Pacific Coast. My first stops were in Rochester, Syracuse, Cleveland, Columbus, Logansport, Evansville, Terre Haute, Burlington, and Kansas City. I spent about a day in each place until reaching the last named. My welcome was uniformly hearty, representatives of organized labor meeting me at the stations, often accompanied by the Mayor or some local official friendly to the cause of labor. Usually, a parade preceded the public talk, and the meetings were crowded to overflowing. Between these public engagements I had conferences with friends and labor men, helping them with local problems and informing myself of the growth and development of the labor movement. In the early formative period of the Federation I knew personally the great majority of the members of local unions. This personal acquaintance and contact were of primary importance in mobilizing wage-earners in support of trade unionism. There is nothing I like better than to meet people and feel that good comradeship that comes from mutual understanding and liking. There is no other one factor to which my ability to secure co-operation in the work of the labor movement can be attributed more than friendly good comradeship and ability to meet men on their own level. I feel equally at ease with the ditch-digger, the skilled artisan, the business man, the employer, the professional man, men of science, men in public life from Aldermen up to Cabinet members and even the President of the United States, provided they are genuinely human in their attitude toward life. I love life and enjoy living. I have always rebelled at conventionalities that merely repressed, and hated hypocrisy. Many a time over a mug of beer or a drink of whisky I won men for the cause of trade unionism when I had failed in every other way. I have never taken a drink during any part of the day until my whole day's work was done – and often that was not done until far into the night. As I seldom made prepared speeches and as I knew my stomach and brain did not function best at the same time, I never ate prior to the making of my address. Often I sat through luncheons, dinners, and banquets without touching food. Not infrequently it was a real hardship to abstain, but I put my work first.
So this trip was hard work – increasing work that taxed every ability and resource. My main purpose was to unite all workers in behalf of eight hours for the miners, and thereby assure their moral and financial support, my second purpose was to strengthen the local movements. It was then only five years since the A. F. of L. had been organized out of the old Federation of Trades and Labor Unions. The purpose and the value of federated effort were a new idea; hence, the importance of educational work. Thirdly, at that time there was grave danger of a secession movement on the Pacific Coast. I tried to be helpful in straightening out difficulties and in developing plans.
I stayed several days in Kansas City where I made six addresses. The Mayor, a former machinist, and a prominent judge, who was an ex-miner, formally gave me the: freedom of the city. In addition to other conferences of importance, I had a long talk with G. H. Howard, Grand Chief of the Conductors' Union. While in Evansville, I had a three-hour talk with the Grand Chief of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Sargent. Both of these men were keenly interested in federation and the question was before their organizations.
After leaving Kansas City, I went to St. Joseph, Topeka, and Denver. There also the citizens gave me the freedom of the city. A committee from the Trades Assembly met me at the station. Committees took me riding through the city to visit all the municipal and state buildings and out where I might see the sweep of the wonderful mountains surrounding the city.
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After my address, Mr. Montgomery, president of the Trades Assembly, presented me with a beautiful medal on behalf of the thirty-seven unions constituting that body. This beautiful eight-hour medal made of gold and silver mined in Colorado I treasure among my many valued mementoes. It came at a time when few honors were bestowed upon representatives of organized labor.
After many conferences upon local labor matters, I left for Salt Lake City, arriving there early March 2. Utah was then a territory. My reception was equally cordial. During the early day I was taken over town and driven out to Fort Douglas. Happening upon Sam Levy's cigar factory, I walked in and tried my hand at making a cigar. The boys pronounced it good. At the public meeting that night Governor Thomas introduced me to the audience of working men and other citizens who listened with deep attention to my talk on labor. Mr. Shafer, on behalf of organized labor, had presented me with a fine gold-headed walking stick. I left Salt Lake City for Sacramento, feeling that the personal relations thus far established would be of greatest value in binding the workers of the country more closely in one federated movement.
On the western coast I found that whole-hearted friendliness, the mere recollection of which arouses feelings of appreciation even today. Californians can never do enough for their friends. Hermann Gudstadt, my longtime friend and shopmate at Pohalski's in New York City, came from San Francisco to meet me in Sacramento. As the Legislature was in session, I delayed several hours in Sacramento to confer over labor legislation. Late in the evening we reached Oakland, where I was greeted by a Reception Committee headed by Alfred Fuhrmann, at that time one of the most powerful men in the Coast labor movement. We crossed the harbor to San Francisco where the Coast Seamen's Union in uniform were drawn up in line at the city front and made the advance guard of a procession through the principal streets to Shoemakers' Hall where the Federated Trades Council was waiting for me to address them.
After a short address on the night of my arrival, in which I said I was there not on a pleasure trip but to work to help them heal their differences, to construct not to tear down, the Council adjourned and proceeded in a body to Folsom Street wharf where the Coast Seamen's Union was celebrating its anniversary on the lumber-pile where the organization had come into being. It was a picturesque scene. Immense piles of lumber were illuminated by the glare of many torches. The music of the band echoed over the waters of the bay. I was escorted to the lumber pile which I mounted, and told the seamen that although not a sailor I was custodian for the Seamen's Union of the Atlantic Coast. I told them I hoped to see in the near future a union of seamen not only of this Coast and the Atlantic Coast, but a federation of the seamen of the world. Next day I was driven through the city and out to Cliff House. After a long conference on the Brewery Workers' situation, I made a trip through Chinatown – not the especially prepared route for tourists. It was an awful experience with all its hideousness. I had read Dante's Inferno, but Chinatown seemed to me a greater horror with its reeking smells, the human wrecks, gambling and mad licentiousness. The picture burned into my mind that night came to me vividly throughout future years when Chinese immigration was under consideration.
The Cigarmakers took me to Chinese cigar factories. I had made an investigation of tenement house cigar factories, but they were sanitary in comparison with the Chinese places, two or three stories underground.
That night I made a public address at Metropolitan Temple, which was crowded. Alfred Fuhrmann presided and introduced me. I made a trade union talk, illustrating by local situations, a method which proved very effective.
While in San Francisco I learned considerable about the Molders' fight then in progress there. In that connection I met Joseph Valentine, then an officer of the San Francisco Molders' Union and with whom I have worked in such complete co-operation in later years. I went down to Los Angeles for an evening speech and also spoke in Oakland. Just before I started for Portland a reception and ball were given in my honor in Woodward Gardens. This gave me an opportunity to meet socially practically all the working people. During the evening Mr. Fuhrmann presented me with a beautiful gold badge on behalf of the Federated Trades Council. I spoke in Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, and Spokane Falls. While I was on this trip, each evening after the day's work was done I wrote dispatches covering the day's events which were transmitted East and published in the leading morning papers. I received no compensation for these daily messages. The honors that were showered on me I received not as personal tributes but as manifestations of honor for the cause.
Starting on my long trip East, I kept engagements in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth. While in Duluth I was first advised by Secretary Evans of the critical situation that had developed through the Coke-makers' strike. Soon after I learned that an Executive Council meeting had been called for Pittsburgh. I was amazed that such a step should have been taken without consulting or informing me and at once wrote to the Secretary, Chris Evans, for an explanation. A letter from Evans informed me of the urgent situation that had developed while I was on my trip.
The officers of the United Mine Workers advised the headquarters of the Federation of the situation in Pennsylvania and stated that unless the Coke-makers' strike for eight hours could be won the whole Miners' campaign would be jeopardized. As there was not sufficient time to get in touch with me, Chris Evans wired P. J. McGuire and other members of the E. C. for advice. McGuire and others were of the opinion that the situation was only an attempt of the K. of L. to force the Federation to bear the expenses of a regular trade controversy. But such members as could met in Pittsburgh where it was decided that the Federation would not be justified in assuming responsibility for the strike.
On my return trip East I stopped in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia where a committee from the coke region, J. Nugent and John McBride, conferred with me. A telegram from Pat McBryde, secretary of the Miners, reached me there, asking that I sanction the payment of $2,000 to the coke strikers. I replied that I had only one vote but I regarded that money for the Miners' eight-hour campaign in the custody of the E. C. as for a specific time and purpose and that in my opinion it would be a violation of trust to do anything contrary to our instructions. Such a policy was in line with that followed the previous year in the Carpenters' eight-hour campaign. The committee of coke workers had given a very discouraging account of the situation in the Connellsville district and it seemed to me foolhardy to use $2,000 out of our meager means for a lost cause.
I had to hasten back to New York, as many matters had been held for my attention during my absence from headquarters. On April 17 the executives of the United Mine Workers issued an official circular urging the Miners to make the fight for the eight-hour day on May first. They then suggested to the K. of L. that they advance $2,500 for the coke workers then contending for eight hours on condition that the Federation refund that amount when the May 1 campaign was inaugurated. To this we agreed, but to our amazement on April 28 the Miners issued another circular declaring the "eight-hour campaign off for the present" and advising their local unions to act accordingly.
The state militia had been in the region for weeks. The coke operators had been importing Italians to replace the strikers. They had been evicting the coke workers from the company houses. The hills were dotted with white tents – the only covering the strikers could secure. As I stood watching some of the evictions, the peremptory methods of the soldiers angered the Hungarians who would have caused trouble if I had not interposed and advised against violence.
After the movement of 1891, it was no longer necessary for the national labor movement to sponsor specific eight-hour movements. The pioneer work had been done and special groups from that time on assumed responsibility for establishing this standard in their own trades.
Hours" From Seventy Years of Labor, Samuel L. Gompers,
E.P. Dutton, 1925
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