Labor Unions

1886 - 1933 - 1945

Making cigars at home, printed in Leslie's, Nov. 3 1877.
A melodramatic portrayal of the plight of the tradesman during the Panic of 1837, whose financial distress the artist ascribes to Loco Foco politics and the effects of the Specie Circular, or "Specie Clause."
"The working-man's banner." Currier & Ives, 1872.
Cigar makers in Tampa, by Lewis Hine 1909
Knights of Labor, print by Kurz & Allison.
Cigar Makers Union Label - 2
Samuel Gompers 1904

1648 - Boston shoemakers and coopers founded guilds.

1724 - Carpenter's Company of Philadelphia founded.

1765 - Daughters of Liberty organized working women and led boycotts against British.

1825 - United Tailoresses of New York founded, led first women's trade union strike in New York City.

1827 - The Mechanics Union of Trade Associations founded in Philadelphia.

1828 - Workingmen's Party founded Philadelphia.

1829 - Workingman's Party founded in New York City.

1834 - National Trades Union founded in New York City, intended as a national labor federation, but failed in the Panic of 1837. The Factory Girls' Association was founded in Lowell and factory girls waged their first strike.

1836 - National Cooperative Association of Cordwainers founded in New York City as the first national trade union. Workers in Utica, NY, signed a Declaration of Rights and formed the Equal Rights Party that was also called the Loco Focos in New York City.

1837 - Andrew Jackson proclaimed a ten hour day for the Philadelphia Navy Yard. In 1840, the ten hour day was extended to all federal public works employees.

1844 - New England Workingmen's Association founded.

1845 - Sarah Bagley founds the Female Labor Reform Association in Lowell, MA.

1847 - New Hampshire passed the first state ten hour day law.

1853 - Isaac Singer patented his sewing machine.

1852 - Typographical Union founded, merged 1986 into CWA.

1859 - Iron Molders Union formed in Philadelphia. The iron molders included immigrants such as William Turner who came from Ireland in 1850, worked at the Albany Iron Works 6 days per week, 12 hours per day, raised a family of 8 children, owned a brick row house in Troy, New York. Irish and German immigrants created working-class communities of churches, saloons, fraternal organizations, newspapers, extended family networks.

1863 - Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers founded, today's BLET. Working Women's Union founded.

1864 - Cigar Makers National Union of the United States founded, merged in 1974 with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union.

1866 - National Labor Union founded in Baltimore.

1867 - Knights of St. Crispin founded for shoe factory workers. Chicago general strike for the 8 hour day.

1868 - Federal 8 hour day law passed for government workers. Workingmen's Benevolent Association founded in anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania.

1869 - Uriah Stephens founded the Knights of Labor, a secret organization for all working men and women. Isaak Myers founded Black National Labor Union in Washington DC. General Council of the Workingmen's Associations of the Anthracite Coal Fields founded March 17 in Pennsylvania.

1872 - Republican presidential campaign appealed to the workingman.  Currier & Ives print shows a Republican campaign banner designed to appeal to the labor vote by invoking the working class origins of candidates Ulysses S. Grant and Henry Wilson. Grant wears a tanner's apron and jackboots and holds a shield decorated with stars and stripes. He is identified as "The Galena Tanner." Henry Wilson, who holds a hammer, is identified as "The Natick Shoemaker." (He began his career as a shoemaker in Natick, Massachusetts.) Grant stands near the door to a tannery, and Wilson stands before a shoemaker's bench.

1874 - Francis Willard founded the WCTU.

1875 - Samuel Gompers elected president of Cigar Makers' International Union (CMIU) Local 144 in New York City.

1876 - Molly Maguires trial in Pennsylvania.

1877 - National railroad strikes suppressed by federal troops. The strikes influenced domestic servants in Galveston to strike, and fours years later the black washerwomen of Atlanta went of a tw0-week strike for higher wages and recruited supporters by door-to-door canvassing in neighborhoods. Albert Parsons in Chicago lost his typesetter job after the strikes, with his wife Lucy known as the most famous radical couple in Chicago, organized the May 1, 1886, march of 80,000 in Chicago for the 8 hour day.

1879 - Terence Powderly led the Knights of Labor, admitted Mary Sterling, leader of the Philadelphia lady shoemakers, as delegate to the 1881 convention.

1880 - Cigar Makers International Union used the first union label.

1881 - Federation of Trades and Labor Unions founded in Pittsburgh, became in 1886 the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

1882 - Labor Day celebrated in New York City. Chinese Exclusion Act passed. Central Labor Union (CLU) founded in New York City.

1884 - Federal Bureau of Labor established in Department of the Interior.

1885 - Foran Act prohibited contract immigration labor.


1886 - Haymarket Square in Chicago explosion and violence, began with May 1 parade, then May 3 police attacks at the McCormick Reaper plant, then May 4 protest called by August Spies at Haymarket Square that ended with bomb explosion and arrest of the Haymarket 8. Henry George ran for NY mayor with support of the Knights of Labor, CLU, Father Ed McGlynn, but lost to Tammany's Abram Hewitt.

"The Anarchist Riot in Chicago - A Dynamite Bomb exploding among the police" during the McCormick strike. Drawn by T. de Thulstrup from sketches and photos furnished by H. Jeaneret. Harper's Weekly, May 15,1886.
"The anarchist-labor troubles in Chicago The police charging the murderous rioters in old Haymarket Square on the night of May 4th" showing police charging rioters on May 4th in Haymarket Square, Chicago, and bust portraits of seven policemen. from sketches by C. Bunnell and Chas Upham. Leslie's May 15, 1886.

Striking Polish coal miners in battle with coal and iron police, near Shenandoah City, PA, sketch by Joseph Becker, Leslie's, Feb. 3, 1888.
Two women strikers on picket line during the "Uprising of the 20,000", garment workers strike, Feb. 1910, New York City.
"Tenement Homework" by Lewis Hine, 1913. "11:30 A.M. Jennie Rizzandi, 9 year old girl, helping mother and father finish garments in a dilapidated tenement, 5 Extra Pl., N.Y.C. They all work until 9 P.M. when busy, and make about $2 to $2.50 a week. Father works on street, when he has work. Jennie was a truant, "I staid home 'cause a lady was comin'.-". Location: New York.
Penn. coal strike - in Atlantic camp showing guns of deputies
Woman VP of her local, United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, CIO, by FSA 1941

1890 - United Mine Workers Union (UMWA) founded in Ohio, with John Rae as president.

1892 - Homestead strike in Pittsburgh against Carnegie Steel.

1893 May 15 - Western miners organized the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) in Butte, Montana, and broke away from the AFL in 1897. Big Bill Haywood led strikes at Couer d'Alene, Idaho, and Cripple Creek, Colorado. WFM became the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW) in 1916, and merged with UMWA in 1967.

1893 June 20 - Western railroad workers led by Eugene V. Debs founded the American Railway Union (ARU) in Chicago.

1894 - Pullman strike in Illinois by the American Railway Union.

1897 - Richard L. Davis elected to National Executive Board of UMW, the only African-American to hold a national union office.

1898 - Patrick McCarthy founded Building Trades Council that followed Gompers' business unionism.

1900 - International Ladies Garment Workers Union founded, merged in 1995 into UNITE.

1901 - United Textile Workers of America founded.

1902 - Coal strike in Pennsylvania ended by Roosevelt's Square Deal.

1903 - National Women's Trade Union League founded at the annual AFL convention. The Department of Commerce and Labor founded. Mother Jones led victims of industrial accidents in the March of the Mill Children to President Roosevelt's home in New York. International Brotherhood of Teamsters founded.

1905 - Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) founded in Chicago.

1906 - James A. Farley was "King of the Strikebreakers" who broke the San Francisco streetcar strike in 1906 that resulted in "Bloody Tuesday,"

1911 - Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City, and the New York Factory Investigating Commission founded.

1912 - IWW textile strike in Massachusetts. First state minimum wage law by Massachusetts.

1913 - The Department of Labor founded.

1914 - Clayton Act permitted unions to organize, strike, picket, and limited use of the injunction against strikers.

1920 - John L. Lewis elected president of the UMW.

1922 - coal strikers killed 20 in the southern Illinois Herrin Massacre.

1924 - William Green replaced Gompers as president of the AFL.

1929 - Loray Mill textile strike in Gastonia, NC. article


1933 - Francis Perkins appointed Secretary of Labor. The Wagner-Peyser Act created the United States Employment Service in the Labor Department.

1934 - Great Uprising of southern millworkers when 500,000 went on strike, but after three weeks the strike was crushed by private armies using violence and intimidation. Governor Blackwood of South Carolina and Governor Ehringhaus of North Carolina called up the National Guard to break picket lines. Governor Eugene Talmadge of Georgia called up the National Guard to arrest all picketers. The strike was a major defeat for the UTW and any chance of textile unionization in the South for the next 20 years.

1935 - John L. Lewis merged 8 unions into the Congress for Industrial Organization (CIO). The Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act) provided for collective bargaining.

1936 - The sit-down strike of the United Rubber Workers against Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. In May, the District Council of Office Equipment Workers, a union affiliated with the AFL, began a strike against the Remington Rand typewriter company in Elmira, NY, that resulted in violence and strikebreaking led by the private army of Pearl Bergoff. The strike produced the Mohawk Valley formula published by the NAM that guided owners to discredit labor leaders, threaten workers with economic retaliation, organize a Citizens Committee to demand law and order, and offer strikers a bogus back-to-work option to encourage them to leave the strike. The NLRB ruled against the Remington Company and condemned the Mohawk Valley formula.

1937 - Little Steel strike in Chicago caused death of 10 in the Memorial Day Massacre.

1938 - The Fair Labor Standards Act set a $.25 minimum wage.

1939 - Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) founded as the CIO-affiliated successor to the failed UTW, had some success in the North but little in the South.

1944 - The total union members in the U.S. numbered 18,600,000 including 3,500,000 women. But Florence Luscomb was unable to organize female clerical workers into the Union of Office and Professional Workers Union.


1945 - The conservative opposition to the labor movement that had started during the war grew stronger. Congress introduced over 70 anti-labor bills in the 18 months after the war. Small companies opposed the "secondary boycott" used by Teamsters and Longshoremen. Republicans feared the Politcal Action Committee (PAC) created by John L. Lewis to aid FDR in the 1944 election.

1946 Moline strike in Minneapolis

1946 - The largest number of strikes in American history swept the country in the first year after the war. The United Electrical Workers won in Bloomfield, NJ.

1947 - Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over Truman's veto. Congress investigated communist influence in the Milwaukee UAW strike against Allis-Chalmers.

1948 - The 2-prong strategy of organized labor was Operation Dixie in the South and support for the Democratic party in the November elections. However, the effort in the South failed due to physical intimidation of organizers, racial divisions, closed company towns. The "Whistlestop" election was won by Harry Truman, but the party was divided by Dixiecrats and Wallace Progressives. There was a national ambivalence to radicalism; in Alabama, the United Steel Workers defeated a challenge by the radical African-American leadership of the Mine, Mill, Smelter Workers in Birmingham.

1949 - Communism polarized the labor movement. Walter Reuther began to purge leftists from the UAW. The CIO expelled 9 communist-led unions. Catholic priests in working-class parishes helped oust communist leaders, especially in the UEW and the Irish Transport Workers Union. Father John Corridan was the "Waterfront Priest" in New York, provided information to Malcolm Johnson who inspired the film On the Waterfront. Despite attempts at reform, there remained much racism and anti-semitism in the labor movement.

George Meany 1952 and 1979, from archives

1950 - The Treaty of Detroit marked the rise of growing labor-management accord with a 5-year contract based on the 1948 agreements. The UAW-GM contract of 1948 had embraced two pillars of the accord: a cost-of-living agreement (COLA) and a uniform acceptance of wage increases by all industries. This accord had a steep price: growing shop floor militancy and wildcat strikes. The solution would be the merger of unions into a single organization.

1952 - George Meany replaced William Green as president of the AFL, and the man who claimed he never led a strike would engineer the "sleepy monopoly" of a national union, powerful but subject to corruption.

1953 - This year was the high point of the union movement, with 35% of the nation's workers organized.

1955 - CIO merged with the AFL. John McClellan of Arkansas began hearings on labor racketeering in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that had been abused by Joseph McCarthy in 1953-54. Allen Friedman was an enforcer with the Teamsters in Cleveland run by Jackie Presser who later became an FBI informant, and gave an account of "sweetheart deals" with Italian restaurants and trucking companies.

1957 McClellan hearing from JFKL

1957 - The AFL-CIO expelled the Teamsters due to corruption. McClellan had probed union crime in the hearings of his Senate Labor Committee, led by the efforts of young committee counsel Robert Kennedy who uncovered illegal loans by the union to David Beck who also kept $1,900 from the sale of a union-owned 1952 Cadillac. Jimmy Hoffa replaced Beck as president of the union until his conviction in 1964 (released 1971 and disappeared 1975).

1958 - The labor movement splintered due to automation, fringe benefits, security for older members but less opportunity for younger workers and females and minorities. Tom Watson at IBM introduced a new generation of transistorized business computers and the SAGE system pioneered new systems integration. Blue collar line workers decreased as a percentage of the labor force, and female clerical workers remained reluctant to organize. The Marshall Plan and the Common Market produced growing imports from Europe, and a recovered Japan began to capture markets for steel and consumer electronics.

1959 - Due to McClellan's investigations of union corruption, Congress passed the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (Landrum-Griffin Act).

1963 - McClellan's investigations of corruption widened to organized crime, with the revelations of witness Joseph Valachi.

1974 - Textile Workers Unions of America (TWUA) won election to represent workers of the J. P. Stevens textile factory in Roanoke Rapids, NC, an event portrayed in the Martin Ritt film Norma Rae with Sallie Fields as Crystal Lee Sutton.

1981 - Reagan fired the air traffic controllers after the PATCO strike.

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revised 4/13/07 by Steven Schoenherr | Labor links