10 Pivotal Moments in the U.S. Labor Movement

by Staff Writer

Our nation's immense growth in a relatively short period of time is due to the incredible work ethic of our citizens. The strides that were made beginning in the Industrial Revolution, however, came at a high cost, as the physical and mental health of many Americans deteriorated due to unreasonably long hours and little or no time off. A centuries-long labor battle ensued, bringing forth all of the rights we're afforded today as workers. As Labor Day approaches — and you anticipate that much-needed rest — remember these pivotal moments in the U.S. labor movement.

  1. National Labor Union forms, 1866

    Although it lasted just seven years, the NLU holds the distinction of being America's first labor union. Consisting of skilled and unskilled workers, it was organized to bring together already existing unions throughout the country to demand an eight-hour work day and press for additional reforms. Its only real taste of success came in 1868 when Congress passed a statute providing an eight-hour day for government workers, which was ultimately made ineffective by agencies reducing wages in response.

  2. Knights of Labor forms, 1869

    The disintegration of the NLU strengthened the Knights of Labor, which quickly expanded after the economic depression of the mid-1870s. Opposing socialism and refusing association with radical elements, they became the first truly successful large-scale labor organization in the country, boasting membership of 700,000 in 1886. Most notably, they advocated an eight-hour work day, sought to end child and convict labor, and in some cases, negotiated with employers on behalf of their employees. Poor organization, internal strife and Haymarket Riot contributed to their eventual demise.

  3. Great Railroad Strike, 1877

    Poor economic conditions caused northern railroad companies to cut salaries and wages, angering workers who played an essential role in the tremendous growth of our nation's most efficient form of transportation. A walkout by the employees of the Baltimore & Ohio line was followed by violent strikes in major cities such as Chicago, Kansas City and San Francisco — 10 were killed, for example, in a militia melee in Baltimore. After 45 days of chaos and many more deaths, the strike ended after President Rutherford Hayes used the force of federal troops.

  4. American Federation of Labor forms, 1886

    As the Knights of Labor reached their peak, a group of disaffected members came together to form the American Federation of Labor. Samuel Gompers served as the organization's first president, a position he would hold until his death in 1924 when membership reached 3 million. Under his leadership, disharmony among different groups was kept at a minimum, and collective bargaining became the AFL's primary strategy. A capitalist at heart, he once famously said, "The worst crime against working people is a company which fails to operate at a profit."

  5. Haymarket Riot, 1886

    Tensions mounted as little headway was made in the eight-hour movement and overall quest to improve labor conditions. On May 4, 1886, labor leaders and anarchists spoke to hoards of workers near Haymarket in Chicago. As the crowd became agitated, 170 armed police attempted to break it up, prompting an unidentified person to hurl a bomb at them. A flurry of gunfire ensued, and by the end of the fiasco, eight officers and numerous civilians were dead. As a result, four men were executed and anti-union sentiment swept across the country.

  6. Homestead Strike, 1892

    The expiration of a sliding scale wage agreement between the Carnegie Steel Company and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers brought forth infamous The Homestead Strike. With Andrew Carnegie out of the country and the vigorously anti-union Henry Clay Frick in charge, contentious negotiations led to a lockout of the workforce, who in turn guarded the premises from the possible use of scabs. When an army of 300 strikebreaking detectives employed by Frick, also known as the Pinkertons, arrived on July 6, workers charged them, provoking gunfire. The 13-hour battle resulted in the deaths of seven workers and three Pinkertons. In the following weeks, the company used a variety of tactics to weaken the union, eventually winning the dispute on November 17 when the AAISW voted to lift the prohibition.

  7. Pullman Strike, 1894

    A reduction of wages and long, arduous hours at the Pullman Palace Car Company prompted 3,000 of its employees to initiate a strike, leading to a shutdown of the factory. Assistance was provided by the American Railway Union and its leader Eugene Debs, whose union members refused to run trains using Pullman cars. Railroad service in and around Chicago was disrupted, but Attorney General Richard Olney used claims of violence — 13 strikers were killed during the ordeal — to obtain federal troops to quell the strike. President Grover Cleveland justified the action by asserting it interfered with delivery of U.S. mail.

  8. Walsh-Healey Act passes, 1936

    One of the major reforms passed in the New Deal, the Walsh-Healy Act covered specific employees of government contractors, establishing overtime pay for workers who exceeded eight-hour days, a minimum wage, and standards for child and convict labor. This set up broader wages and hours legislation encompassing a large number of workers throughout the nation.

  9. Taft-Hartley Act passes, 1947

    More than five million workers participated in strikes in 1947, forcing businesses and advocates of their rights to take action. Composed to prevent "unfair labor practices," the Taft-Hartley Act prohibited wildcat strikes, jurisdictional strikes, political strikes, secondary strikes, large-scale picketing and union donation to federal political campaigns. President Harry Truman, who called it a "dangerous intrusion on free speech," vetoed the bill only for it to be overridden in Congress. Multiple attempts have been made to amend the bill since its passage, but they were met with stiff opposition from Republicans.

  10. AFL and CIO merger, 1955

    Before their merger, the AFL and CIO were rivals and two of the largest labor unions in the country. However, the new leadership of George Meany and Walter Reuther reduced tensions and brought forth a more pragmatic approach from the organizations, which combined for a membership of more than 15 million. Together, they more efficiently staved off corruption, but dropped the CIO's liberal policies regarding civil rights and jurisdictional disputes. More than five decades later, the AFL-CIO consists of 56 national and international unions, boasting 11 million members.


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