Digital History

Industrialization and the Working Class

The Origins of American Trade Unionism Previous Next
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 of 1837.

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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