From the encyclopedic treatment of the labor movement from the 1910s–1930s at the John R. Commons School, University of Wisconsin, to the emergence of a new labor history in the 1960s and after, scholarly inquiry into the history of labor unions and working people’s movements in the United States has made up a major field of study.
The new republic’s founding principle of private property created a situation in which people who lacked land or other material resources to earn their subsistence were compelled to sell their labor in the marketplace and were at a comparative disadvantage with the owners of capital.
In order to enhance their bargaining power vis-à-vis business owners, working people organized into various types of associations and unions, a process that went through a number of distinct phases corresponding to larger changes in industry, transport, and markets, in a national economy marked by frequent cycles of boom and bust, which comprises a major chapter in U.S. history early years
In the early republic and antebellum periods, most manufacturing was done by artisans in small, often family-owned and -operated shops in cities, towns, and rural areas. Until the 1840s wage labor was rare.
The vast majority of the nation’s inhabitants made their living by the soil, while slavery, indentured servitude, apprenticeship, household production, and other forms of bound labor predominated.
Important exceptions were the shoe and textile industries in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania during the first Industrial Revolution in the 1810s and 1820s, in which numerous large factories employing a permanent wage labor force first emerged in North America.
An example is the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, based on the paternalistic Waltham System, in which hundreds of mostly young farm women labored for upward of 70 hours per week under highly supervised conditions, mainly to supplement family income.
Because of the small scale of most manufacturing enterprises during this period, the most successful organizing efforts by working people resulted in the formation of relatively small and localized trade and craft unions and associations, which often melded with fraternal societies and benevolent organizations.
By the late 1820s the growth of the factory system, cities, markets, and the expanding scale of many workshops prompted the formation of the nation’s first labor movement. A commonly cited touchstone marking the emergence of a self-conscious working class was the establishment of the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations of Philadelphia in 1827, the nation’s first citywide confederation of local trade unions.
In the same year in Philadelphia the Working Men’s Party was founded, the nation’s first political party organized specifically to defend and advance the interests of working people. Similar associations and parties were soon established in New York, Boston, and elsewhere.
The period from the late 1820s to the mid-1830s saw a flourishing of workers’ associations, trade unions, and workers’ political parties in major cities of the Northeast, symbolized by the formation of the General Trades’ Union of New York in 1833.
Inspired by 18th century republicanism, evangelical Christianity, broader reformist impulses, and local traditions of autonomy, one of the major goals of these early organizing efforts was to establish a 10-hour workday. Most such efforts failed, as by law and custom employers enjoyed the right to dictate the terms of labor, including the length of the workday.
The issue came to a head in 1835, which saw the first general strike in U.S. history, as carpenters, millhands, stonecutters, hatters, shoemakers, horseshoers, and members of many other trades, male and female, walked off the job, set up picket lines, staged street demonstrations, and assembled in town halls and large open-air gatherings in cities and towns across the Northeast. The spate of organizing, striking, and picketing continued into 1836, a year that saw more than a dozen new unions established in major U.S. cities.
The surge of labor activism came to an abrupt halt with the panic of 1837, which sent the national economy into a nosedive and threw thousands out of work. The economic depression lasted seven years, severely weakening the bargaining power of workers’ organizations.
Meanwhile major changes were transforming the face of the nation. Waves of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and elsewhere in Europe poured into the major cities of the eastern seaboard in the 1840s and 1850s, many heading west with the promise of ample cheap land.
The transportation revolution went hand-in-hand with the market revolution, as canals, roads, and railroads made geographic mobility a characteristic feature of the young republic’s burgeoning population.
Ethnic, racial, and religious divisions compounded the difficulties of forging viable workers’ political parties or labor unions, as did a surge in antiimmigrant (or nativist) sentiment among the American-born.
In the late 1840s, exemplifying the reformist impulse sweeping through much of the country in the preceding two decades, a resurgent labor movement coalesced under the banner of national reform, brainchild of former trade unionist George Henry Evans, who built on Jeffersonian agrarianism to envision a nation of small farmers supplied with land by the federal government.
During the same period, industrial congresses formed in many of the nation’s major cities, exemplified by the National Typographical Union, formed in 1852 and arguably the country’s first national trade union. A spurt of organizing in the early 1850s created national unions of upholsterers, railroad engineers, blacksmiths, and other tradesmen.
The momentum proved hard to sustain, however. Economic downturns in 1854 and 1857, combined with westward expansion and torrents of new immigrants—2 million in the 1850s alone—intensified nativist sentiments, fragmenting working people by ethnicity, religion, and politics, as well as by region.
Still, these years saw major organizing efforts and several important strikes, most notably the Great Strike of 1860, sparked by shoemakers in Lynn, Massachusetts, which spread throughout much of the Northeast, in which some 20,000 workers participated and women played a major role.
The American Civil War transformed the nation’s economy in important ways and, with it, the relations among labor, capital, and the state. The state got bigger; big business got bigger; and organized labor struggled to keep up.
At one level, the war created the nation’s first military-industrial complex. Wartime production surged, as ever-larger factories, North and South, churned out staggering quantities of munitions, uniforms, and sundry other items consumed in the conflict.
Federal government spending more than quadrupled from 1860 to 1870 (from $72 to $329 million), the vast bulk due to deficit spending, via bonds, to finance the war, expanding the stock market and providing a tremendous boost to the nation’s banks and finance capital.
Dramatically expanding the size and scope of the federal government, the war also expanded and integrated the nation’s markets and its transport and communication infrastructure.
In the North, full employment strengthened workers’ bargaining power and heightened worker militancy, leading to a surge in labor organizing, with some 300 unions representing 61 trades founded during the war. By war’s end, some 200,000 workers belonged to hundreds of trade unions, some of them national and many others aspiring to be.
Organized labor came of age during the Second Industrial Revolution after the Civil War, which reached its height from the 1870s to the 1890s, fueled by large concentrations of finance capital, rapidly expanding markets, a host of technological innovations, and torrents of immigrants pouring in from Europe and Canada and, in the West, from Asia.
The growth of major industries in railroads, steel, and manufacturing and the expansion of consumer goods and labor markets were accompanied by the formation of thousands of local unions and numerous nationwide organizations that competed for the allegiance of the country’s rapidly growing industrial labor force.
The National Labor Union, founded in 1866, an umbrella organization of trade unionists, agitated for the eight-hour workday and other reforms but never fully got off the ground.
More enduring in its impact was the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, which reached the height of its influence in the mid1880s under Terence Powderly, with a membership of around 750,000 and lodges in most every county in the nation.
More inclusive than other labor associations, the Knights exalted the “nobility of toil” and dignity of labor, opening its doors to all who worked, regardless of race, gender, or social class.
Championing the eighthour day, the abolition of child labor, and the creation of a “cooperative commonwealth” that would replace “wage slavery,” the organization under Powderly’s idiosyncratic and autocratic rule disappeared by the early 1890s, but not before exercising an important influence on a generation of labor activists and organizers.
Unions and Strikes
With the economic depression of 1873–79 following the panic of 1873, unemployment skyrocketed, leading to a spate of labor organizing and activism, including the Long Strike of coal miners in Pennsylvania in 1874–75.
These events were to prelude one of the signal events in U.S. labor history, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, in which thousands of railroad workers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and Ohio put down their tools and disrupted rail traffic to protest a series of pay cuts.
The protest, fueled by antimonopoly outrage among broad swaths of the populace, sparked a general strike in major industries that spread rapidly as far west as Chicago and St. Louis and at its height included more than 100,000 workers.
Unplanned, unorganized, and without national leadership, the Great Strike lasted more than six weeks and was put down by federal troops at the cost of over 100 workers’ lives.
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which made headlines across much of Europe as well as the United States, exposed the deepening divisions between working people and big business, as well as the federal government’s partisan role on the side of business.
In the two decades to follow, in what is commonly known as Labor’s Great Upheaval, strikes, labor protests, and labor organizing mushroomed across the country and in all major industries, especially railroads, steel, and coal mining, but also among slate quarrymen, garment workers, and hundreds of other trades and crafts. The 1880s alone saw more than 10,000 strikes and lockouts; in 1886–87, union membership reached nearly 1 million.
The AFL and the UMWA
Emblematic of this upsurge in labor activism was the formation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886, led by Samuel Gompers, an outgrowth of the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, founded in 1881.
An umbrella organization representing hundreds of individual trade and craft unions, the AFL was dedicated to “pure and simple unionism” among skilled tradesmen and focused mainly on “bread and butter” issues of wages, working conditions, and the length of the workday.
Spearheaded by the AFL and supported by the Knights of Labor and other organizations, in 1886 upwards of 700,000 workers went on strike, most to press for reduction of the workday to eight hours from an industry average of 12.
The year 1886 also saw the infamous Haymarket affair in Chicago, in which the explosion of a bomb at a huge workers’ rally in Haymarket Square killed a police officer, prompting the police to fire into the crowd, killing one protester and injuring many more and later resulting in the hanging of four labor organizers.
Major industrialists and financiers, backed by the nation’s major newspapers, seized on the Haymarket events to denounce organized labor as dominated by anarchists and terrorists determined to destroy the nation’s social fabric.
The charge had little factual foundation, although it found plausibility in the past decade’s immigration from Germany, Italy, and elsewhere of many seasoned labor organizers influenced by the ideologies of socialism, communism, syndicalism, and anarchism then sweeping across much of Europe. Haymarket and its aftermath had a strong dampening effect on more radical labor organizing efforts.
Political parties devoted to advancing the cause of working people also multiplied in the post–Civil War years, most notably the Socialist Labor Party, led by Daniel De Leon, founded in the 1870s.
Some workingmen’s parties built their strength on appeals to white workers’ racism, such as Dennis Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party of California, instrumental in pressuring Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Unlike in Europe, however, the enfranchisement of white male workers made exclusively labor-oriented political parties less salient, and workingmen’s parties never offered a serious challenge to the country’s dominant political parties.
In 1890 the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was founded in Columbus, Ohio, and in the coming years spread its organizing drives throughout the coal mining districts of Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia, Illinois, Utah, Colorado, and beyond. Affiliated with the AFL and associated with such legendary labor leaders as “Mother Mary” Jones and John L. Lewis, the UMWA remained one of the nation’s most influential unions well into the 20th century.
The 1890s also saw two of the most storied events in modern U.S. labor history: the 1892 Homestead Strike and the 1894 Pullman Strike. Both involved entire communities in large company towns, pitched battles between strikers and company-hired armed guards, intervention of state militias and federal troops, and deaths on both sides.
Both also ended in defeat for the strikers, and both created a legacy of militancy and sacrifice that became emblazoned onto the collective consciousness of organized labor.
In this mounting conflict between labor and capital, the executive branch of government, at both state and federal levels, actively and consistently sided with business. So, too, did the courts.
Emblematic here was the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, a law intended to break up monopolies and trusts by barring combinations in restraint of trade.
Instead of targeting business combinations, the courts used the law to weaken organized labor, essentially declaring strikes illegal if they interfered with interstate commerce, which virtually all could be interpreted to do.
By the 1890s, especially under the impact of the economic depression of 1893–98, the struggle between labor and capital as mediated by a partisan state was entering a new phase.
The very concept of trade or craft unionism, criticized for many years as too narrow a basis for organizing working people, was being increasingly challenged by an emergent industrial unionism, which focused not on individual crafts but on entire industries: steel, mining, construction, transportation, manufacturing, and others.
Epitomizing this industrial approach to organizing was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies), founded in 1905 and committed to the vision of one big union that embraced all workers everywhere.
As organized labor’s tactics and strategies evolved, so too did business’s. By the 1890s work was becoming increasingly homogenized and standardized, the labor process itself increasingly under the control and supervision of management—a trend that has generated an extensive scholarly debate on the question of the deskilling of labor with the rise of factories and mass production.
If the power of organized labor had grown substantially during the Second Industrial Revolution, the power of big capital had grown far more. Overall, organized labor remained much weaker than business, its victories small and tenuous compared to the victories of the forces arrayed against it.
As the foregoing survey makes plain, the growth of organized labor during the period examined here was neither linear nor continuous. Instead, it was marked by complex ebbs and flows, with periods of growth and advance punctuated by periods of retrenchment and decline.
There is a lack of scholarly consensus on how to conceptualize the history of organized labor during these years. Still, many would agree that the period 1870–1930 comprises a coherent temporal unit that witnessed the formation of the modern U.S. labor movement.
Earlier studies of labor history focused principally on organizations and institutions, exemplified by the Commons School of the 1910s–1930s and the work of Philip S. Foner from the 1940s.
Around 1960, there emerged in Britain and North America a new labor history (alongside a new social history) that looked beyond formal institutions to examine workers’ struggles at the point of production and in the wider community, as well as women’s labor history, including unpaid and reproductive labor, and the role of family, culture, ideology, race, gender, and sexuality.
From the late 1980s labor studies emphasized languages of labor and discourses of worker protest, action, and culture. Meanwhile, empirically dense scholarship in the tradition of E. P. Thompson and Herbert Gutman has remained a mainstay of the field.