|The Origins of American Trade Unionism
|Digital History ID 3191|
It took American labor longer than industrialists to successfully
organize on a national basis. By the 1820s, craft workers in the
Northeast had organized the first unions to protest the increased
use of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the production process.
But these were local organizations. It was not until 1834 that
the first national organization of wage earners, the National
Trades' Union, was formed. By 1836, the organization claimed 300,000
members, but it rapidly lost membership during the financial panic
In 1852, printers' locals in 12 cities organized the National
Typographic Union, which fought for a common wage scale and restrictions
on the use of apprentices. It was one of five national unions
formed in the 1850s. Another 21 national unions were organized
in the 1860s. By the early 1870s, about 300,000 workers were organization,
making up about nine percent of the industrial labor force. But
during the financial depression from 1873 to 1878, membership
in labor organizations fell to just 50,000.
The Knights of Labor
During the 1870s and 1880s, American workers began to form
national labor unions in order to effectively negotiate with big
corporations. The Knights of Labor was one of the most important
early labor organizations in the United States. It wanted to organize
workers into "one big brotherhood" rather than into
separate unions made up of workers who had a common skill or who
worked in a particular industry.
The Knights were founded in 1869 as a secret organization of
tailors in Philadelphia. At first, the union had a strong Protestant
religious orientation. But a decade later, when a Catholic, Terence
V. Powderly was elected its head, the Knights became a national
organization open to workers of every kind, regardless of their
skills, sex, nationality, or race. The only occupations excluded
from membership were bankers, gamblers, lawyers, and saloonkeepers.
At its height in 1885, the Knights claimed to have 700,000
members. Despite the Knight's rejection of strikes as a tactic
in labor disputes, the union won big victories against the Union
Pacific railroad in 1884 and the Wabash railroad in 1885. The
Knights had a wide-ranging platform for social and economic change.
The organization campaigned for an eight-hour work day, the abolition
of child labor, improved safety in factories, equal pay for men
and women, and compensation for on-the-job injury. As an alternative
to wage labor, the Knights favored cooperatively run workshops
and cooperative stores. The organization held the first Labor
Day celebration in 1882.
The Knights declined rapidly after the 1886 Haymarket Square
riot in Chicago, in which 11 people were killed by a bomb. The
American Federation of Labor, a union of skilled workers, gradually
replaced the Knights as the nation's largest labor organization.
Unlike the Knights, which sought to organize workers regardless
of craft, rejected the strike as a negotiating tool, and had a
broad-based reform agenda, the American Federation of Labor was
made up of craft unions and committed to "bread-and-butter"
unionism. Its goals were narrower but also more realistic than
those of the Knights. It sought to increase workers' wages, reduce
their hours, and improve their working conditions.
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