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Digital History ID 3519


In 1806 journeymen shoemakers in New York City organized one of the nation's first labor strikes. The workers' chief demands were not higher wages and shorter hours. Instead, they protested the changing conditions of work. They staged a "turn-out" or "stand-out," as a strike was then called, to protest the use of cheap unskilled and apprentice labor and the subdivision and subcontracting of work. To ensure that journeymen did not resume work, a "tramping committee" patrolled the shops. The strike ended when the city's largest shoe employers asked municipal authorities to criminally prosecute the shoemakers for conspiracy to obstruct trade. A court found the journeymen shoemakers guilty and fined them $1 plus court costs.

By the 1820s, a growing number of journeymen were organizing to protest employer practices that were undermining the independence of workers, reducing them to the status of "a humiliating servile dependency, incompatible with the inherent natural equality of men." Unlike their counterparts in Britain, American journeymen did not protest against the introduction of machinery into the workplace. Instead, they vehemently protested wage reductions, declining standards of workmanship, and the increased use of unskilled and semiskilled workers. Journeymen charged that manufacturers had reduced "them to degradation and the loss of that self-respect which had made the mechanics and laborers the pride of the world." They insisted that they were the true producers of wealth and that manufacturers, who did not engage in manual labor, were unjust expropriators of wealth.

In an attempt to raise wages, restrict hours, and reduce competition from unskilled workers, skilled journeymen formed the nation's first labor unions. In larger eastern cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, as well as in smaller western cities like Cincinnati, Louisville, and Pittsburgh, they formed local trade unions and city trades' assemblies. House carpenters, handloom weavers, combmakers, shoemakers, and printers formed national societies to uphold uniform wage standards. In 1834 journeymen established the National Trades' Union, the first organization of American wage earners on a national scale. By 1836 union membership had climbed to 300,000.

These early unions encountered bitter employer opposition. To counter the influence of the newly formed unions, employers banded together in employers' associations, which claimed that union methods were "most obnoxious, coercive, and detrimental to the peace, prosperity and best interests of the community." Employers also requested prosecution of unions as criminal combinations. In 1806, in a case involving Philadelphia shoemakers, a Pennsylvania court established an important precedent by ruling that a labor union was guilty of criminal conspiracy if workers struck to obtain wages higher than those set by custom. Other court decisions declared union’s illegal constraints on trade. In 1842, in the landmark case Commonwealth v. Hunt, the Massachusetts Supreme Court established a new precedent by recognizing the right of unions to exist and restricting the use of the criminal conspiracy doctrine.

In addition to establishing the nation's first labor unions, journeymen also formed political organizations, known as Working Men's parties, as well as mutual benefit societies, libraries, educational institutions, and producers' and consumers' cooperatives. Working men and women published at least 68 labor papers, and they agitated for free public education, reduction of the work day, and abolition of capital punishment, state militias, and imprisonment for debt. Following the Panic of 1837, land reform was one of labor's chief demands. One hundred sixty acres of free public land for those who would actually settle the land was the demand and "Vote Yourself a Farm" became the popular slogan.

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