The Rise of Unions

Over time, the original local labor federations grew into large national labor organizations that fought for workplace rights, wages, working hours, political expression, and labor laws.

Key Takeaways

Getting struck Reduction in force Michael Gompers Among the knights of labor

Workers in many U.S. industries are represented by unions that are legally recognized.The nature and power of organized labor are a product of historical tensions between opposing forces, including those relating to workplace rights, wages, hours of work, political expression, labor laws, and other conditions of work.As values and priorities change and the federal government intervenes periodically, organized unions and their umbrella labor federations, such as the AFL-CIO and citywide federations, have competed, evolved, merged, and split.

Early Organizing

As early as the late eighteenth century, the first trade unions of men formed in the United States, and women seized the opportunity to organize in the 1820s.The earliest organizing of women occurred in Lowell, Massachusetts.A trade union representing the Lowell mill workers spoke to the Massachusetts legislature in 1845 about conditions at the factories, leading to the first government investigation of working conditions.Even though mill strikes of 1834 and 1836 were largely unsuccessful, more than 2,000 workers participated in these strikes and a considerable organization effort was made.As the first federation of American unions, the National Labor Union (NLU) only existed after the Civil War.

Knights of Labor

The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor was the first major worker's group to be organized on a nationwide basis in 1869.Originally, it was a secret, ritualistic society of Philadelphia garment workers.A member of the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor could be either a man or woman as well as an African American or a farmer.When the Knights of Columbus defeated railroad baron Jay Gould in 1885, the organization grew slowly.500,000 workers were added to their ranks within a year, far more than the Knights' thin leadership structure could handle.

Eventually, the Knights transitioned from being a fraternal organization into being more of a labor union.To win concessions from employers, local assemblies began emphasizing cooperative enterprises.In his zeal to free the working class, Powderly, Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor, opposed strikes. However, the size and diversity of the Knights made local assemblies very autonomous.

Increasing autocracy, mismanagement, and unsuccessful strikes caused the membership to decline.Craft unions and industrial unions, also called "craft unionists," fought each other for control of the union.There were hundreds of strikes, walkouts, and job actions spontaneously erupting among the membership, yet the top leadership did not understand that strikes were an effective way to raise the status of the working class, and failed to develop the infrastructure required to organize and coordinate them.The Missouri Pacific strike, which was highly visible in 1886, ended in failure.

Symbolizing the Knights of Labor mission statement, the official seal of the Knights of Labor.

American Federation of Labor and Samuel Gompers

Knights of Labor quickly went into decline.The American Federation of Labor (AFL) gradually grew into the dominant force in the labor movement.Samuel Gompers, former union official of the cigar-makers union, focused the AFL's membership on skilled workers rather than all comers.The objectives of his plan were "nothing but pure and simple": to increase wages, reduce hours, and improve working conditions.Gompers played a crucial role in reshaping labor politics away from socialist views earlier labor leaders had espoused.As the AFL grew in popularity in the United States, it had no relationship with unskilled laborers.

In contrast to Gompers's trade union philosophy, more radicals such as Ed Boyce, president of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), and later, WFM secretary-treasurer, Bill Haywood, considered their views too conservative.Haywood and the WFM helped establish the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, whose members were called 'Wobblies') in 1905, with the aim of organizing the entire working class.Eventually, the IWW aimed to replace capitalism with a workers' commonwealth.Gompers, however, relented when it became apparent that the government was abusing the leaders of the WFM.

Following the First World War, Gompers and his unions fought the Wobblies vigorously, later cooperating with the government in the arrest of union leaders caught up in the IWW's militant antiwar campaign.The IWW essentially disappeared by 1920.Similarly, he opposes the socialists, who believe workers and unions can never coexist with business interests and want to use the labor unions to advance more radical political causes such as that of Eugene V. Debs in his presidential campaign.In 1920, Gompers had marginalized the socialist movement to a few unions, notably coal miners and needle workers.


Samuel Gompers on the board of the American Federation of Labor, 1887.

Racism and Sexism in the AFL

During its early years, the AFL welcomed laborers from nearly every group without discrimination.Gompers is notable for opening up the AFL to radicals and socialists, as well as some semi- and unskilled workers.A few women, African Americans, and immigrants also joined the AFL.By the 1890s, the AFL had become a white-only association, organizing only skilled workers in craft unions.While the AFL professed egalitarianism in regard to black workers, in reality it discriminated against them.Accordingly, the AFL sanctioned the maintenance of segregated locals within its affiliates, particularly in the construction and railroad industries, leading to the exclusion of black workers from union membership and consequently, employment in organized labor.

The AFL's treatment of women workers matched in many ways its policy towards black workers.It was never a strict anti-gay organization, and it even voted in favor of women's unionism on occasion.In spite of such rhetoric, the AFL only halfheartedly supported women's attempts to organize, and they took great pains to keep women out of unions and the workforce altogether.Often, women who organized their own unions were refused entry into the federation, and even those who joined unions found them hostile or intentionally unavailable.The AFL unions often held their meetings at night or in bars, which might make it difficult or uncomfortable for women to attend. Also, male unionists heckled women who spoke at meetings.

After being pressured by unionized female workers, these attitudes gradually changed within the AFL. .As a result of the work of middle-class reformers and activists, often members of the Women's Trade Union League, these unions joined the AFL.

The Molly Maguires

Reading Railroad officials blamed two dozen mine foremen and administrators' deals on a secret society of Irishmen who were called the Molly Maguires. Pinkerton hired an undercover detective to investigate, but it's highly probable that most of the men accused and executed by the railroad were innocent.Fears about the Molly Maguires at the time enabled mine owners to destroy the miners' union, the Workingmen's Benevolent Association.Combined with the Catholic Church's decision to excommunicate members of the fraternal Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), this action severely restricted mine workers' ability to organize in Pennsylvania coal fields.

An Irish-American criminal gang known as Molly Maguires operated mainly among coal miners.Some historians believe that the Mollies lived in Pennsylvania's coal fields from the time of the American Civil War until they were arrested and tried between 1876 and 1878.In this case, the defendants were accused of kidnapping and other crimes, mostly based on the accusations of industrialist Franklin B. Gowen and the testimony of local detective James McParland.Coal and Iron Police, which served under Gowen, arrested the defendants; Gowen, who sought to benefit financially from the destruction of the striking union, represented some of the alleged Molly Maguires at their trials.

A Molly Maguire history is sometimes portrayed as the suppression of a movement that was sparked by personal vendettas, while at other times, as a fight between organized labor and powerful industrial forces.I have no idea whether Molly membership overlapped union membership by any significant degree

Early Labor Protests

Strikes in the United States have been mostly caused by wage disputes. .A strike has been called when nonwhites or women are excluded from employment, or, less often, protests have been called regarding racial discrimination.A decade before the first citywide labor federations were formed, artisans were staging strikes to shorten their workdays.


As a result of layoffs and wage cuts during economic depressions in 1877 and 1894, workers ignited violent labor conflicts.The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 involved rail workers across the country striking over a 10 percent pay cut.In several cities, bloody uprisings broke out when attempts to break the strike were made.This event happened in 1886.At the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago, police dispersed a strike rally when an anarchist threw a bomb at them.The killing of policemen greatly humiliated the Knights of Labor.While they did not do the bombing, they claimed most of the blame nonetheless.

.During the riots of 1892, strikers opened fire and ten people died.Thus, the National Guard was called in to protect the plant.Nonunion workers were hired and the strike ended.Unions were barred completely until 1937 at the Homestead plant.

Wage cuts at Pullman Palace Car Company just outside of Chicago resulted in a strike two years later.The industrial action, coupled with the support of the American Railway Union, soon brought an end to the nation's railway industry.Rail traffic shut down in the mid-1840s, resulting in the virtual shutdown of the entire national economy. Grover Cleveland reacted swiftly.Federal court injunctions were obtained, but Debs and other strike leaders ignored them.Following that, Cleveland sent in the military to put an end to the rioting and to bring the trains back on track.In an ironic twist, both the strike and American Railway Union failed.