The Early Years of the American Labor Movement

The U.S. Labor Movement from the Mid-17th Century to the Great Depression

Construction worker wearing hard hat covered in union stickers
Construction worker wearing hard hat covered in union stickers. Getty Images/David Joel/Photographer's Choice

Many of the laws and programs designed to enhance the lives of working people in America came about in the 1930s, when the American labor movement finally gained and consolidated its political influence. Labor's rise did not come easily; the movement had to struggle for more than a century and a half to finally establish its place in the American economy.


The Rise of American Labor Unions

The history of the legality of labor unions in America is a bit messy.

The primary concern in post-revolutionary America was whether British Common Law, which held that "conspiracy to raise wages" was illegal, still held in the newly freed nation. The case law that followed tells an interesting story of legal interpretation, but the common thread in all cases against laborers who attempted to use collective bargaining power to obtain benefits was that the laborers were eventually convicted of some crime. That was, until the decision in Commonwealth v. Hunt in 1842, in which the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that labor unions were legal as long as they were organized for a legal purpose and used legal methods to achieve their goals.The very first national labor union to organize was the National Labor Union (NLU) in 1866. Though it was dissolved by 1872, it set the precedent for all the labor organizations that followed.


The Unique Nature of American Labor

Unlike labor groups in some other countries, U.S. unions sought to operate within the existing free enterprise system, a strategy that made it the despair of socialists.

There was no history of feudalism in the United States, and few working people believed they were involved in a class struggle. Instead, most workers simply saw themselves as asserting the same rights to advancement as others. Another factor that helped reduce class antagonism was the fact that U.S. workers -- at least white male workers -- were granted the right to vote sooner than workers in other countries.



The Knights of Labor

Since the early labor movement was largely industrial, union organizers had a limited pool of potential recruits. The first significant and effective national labor organization was the Knights of Labor, founded among garment cutters in 1869 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was dedicated to organizing all workers for their general welfare. By 1886, the Knights had about 700,000 members, boasting blacks, women, wage-earners, merchants, and farmers among their ranks. But the interests of these groups were often in conflict, so members had little sense of identity with the movement. The Knights won a strike against railroads owned by American millionaire Jay Gould in the mid-1880s, but they lost a second strike against those railroads in 1886. Membership soon declined rapidly.


The American Federation of Labor (AFL)

In 1881, Samuel Gompers, a Dutch immigrant cigar-maker, and other craftsmen organized a federation of trade unions that five years later would become the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Its members included only wage-earners, and they were organized along craft lines. Gompers was the union's first president. He followed a practical strategy of seeking higher wages and better working conditions, which were priorities subsequently picked up by the entire union movement.

AFL labor organizers faced staunch employer opposition. Management preferred to discuss wages and other issues with each worker, and they often fired or blacklisted (agreeing with other companies not to hire) workers who favored unions. Sometimes they signed workers to what were known as yellow-dog contracts, prohibiting them from joining unions. Between 1880 and 1932, the government and the courts were generally sympathetic to management or, at best, neutral. The government, in the name of public order, often provided federal troops to put down strikes. Violent strikes during this era resulted in numerous deaths, as persons hired by management and unions fought.


Labor Movement Setbacks in the Early 20th Century

The labor movement then suffered a setback in 1905, when the Supreme Court ruled that the government could not limit the number of hours a laborer worked (the court said such a regulation restricted a worker's right to contract for employment).

The principle of the "open shop," the right of a worker not to be forced to join a union, also caused great conflict.

But the AFL's membership stood at 5 million when World War I ended. And while the 1920s were not productive years for union organizers, times were good, jobs were plentiful, and wages were rising. Workers felt secure without unions and were often receptive to management claims that generous personnel policies provided a good alternative to unionism. Of course, the good times came to an end in 1929, however, when the Great Depression hit, which spurred a great revival in the American labor movement.


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