The Rise of Unions

The original citywide labor federations grew into many national-scale labor organizations that fought for workplace rights, wages, working hours, political expression, labor laws, and other working conditions.

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Key Takeaways

Key PointsThe first major effort to organize workers’ groups on a nationwide basis was led by The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor in 1869.The Knights of Labor soon fell into decline, and the American Federation of Labor ( AFL ) soon took their place in the labor movement.In the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, attempts to break the strike led to bloody uprisings in several cities.The Haymarket Affair took place in 1886, when an anarchist allegedly threw a bomb at police dispersing a strike rally at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago.In the riots of 1892, at Carnegie’s steel works, strikers fired upon a group of 300 Pinkerton detectives hired as strikebreakers. Wage cuts at the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1894 led to a strike, which helped bring the nation’s railway industry to a halt.Key Termsstrike: A work stoppage caused by the mass refusal of employees to work, usually in response to employee grievances.layoff: A dismissal of employees from their jobs because of tightened budgetary constraints or work shortage (not due to poor performance or misconduct).Samuel Gompers: An English-born, American labor union leader and a key figure in American labor history; he founded the American Federation of Labor.Knights of Labor: The first major labor union, started in 1869.

Labor unions are legally recognized entities that represent workers in many industries in the United States. The nature and power of organized labor is the outcome of historical tensions among counteracting forces involving workplace rights, wages, working hours, political expression, labor laws, and other working conditions. Organized unions and their umbrella labor federations such as the AFL-CIO and citywide federations have competed, evolved, merged, and split against a backdrop of changing values and priorities, and periodic federal government intervention.

Early Organizing

The first local trade unions of men in the United States formed in the late eighteenth century, and women began organizing in the 1820s. Some of the earliest organizing by women occurred in Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1845, the trade union of the Lowell mills sent representatives to speak to the Massachusetts legislature about conditions in the factories, leading to the first governmental investigation into working conditions. The mill strikes of 1834 and 1836, while largely unsuccessful, involved upward of 2,000 workers and represented a substantial organizational effort. However, the movement came into its own after the Civil War, when the short-lived National Labor Union (NLU) became the first federation of American unions.

Knights of Labor

The first major effort to organize workers’ groups on a nationwide basis appeared with The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor in 1869. It started as a secret, ritualistic society organized by Philadelphia garment workers. The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor was open to all workers, including African Americans, women, and farmers. The Knights grew slowly until the organization succeeded in facing down the great railroad baron Jay Gould in an 1885 strike. Within a year, they added 500,000 workers to their rolls, far more than the thin leadership structure of the Knights could handle.

As membership expanded, the Knights began to function more as a labor union and less like a fraternal organization. Local assemblies began to emphasize cooperative enterprises and to initiate strikes to win concessions from employers. Powderly, Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor, opposed strikes as a “relic of barbarism,” but the size and the diversity of the Knights afforded local assemblies a great deal of autonomy.

Membership declined as the organization experienced problems of an autocratic structure, mismanagement, and unsuccessful strikes. Disputes between the skilled trade unionists, also known as ” craft unionists,” and the industrial unionists weakened the organization. The top leadership did not believe that strikes were an effective way to up the status of the working people, and failed to develop the infrastructure that was necessary to organize and coordinate the hundreds of strikes, walkouts, and job actions spontaneously erupting among the membership. The Knights failed in the highly visible Missouri Pacific strike in 1886.

Knights of Labor seal: The official seal of the Knights of Labor, representing their mission statement.

American Federation of Labor and Samuel Gompers

The Knights of Labor soon fell into decline. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) gradually took their place in the labor movement. Rather than open its membership to everyone, the AFL, under former cigar-makers union official Samuel Gompers, focused on skilled workers. His objectives were “pure and simple”: increase wages, reduce hours, and improve working conditions. As such, Gompers helped turn the labor movement away from the socialist views earlier labor leaders had espoused. The AFL would gradually become a respected organization in the United States, although it would have nothing to do with unskilled laborers.

Gompers’s trade union philosophy and his devotion to collective bargaining with business proved to be too conservative for more radical leaders such as Ed Boyce, president of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), and later, WFM secretary-treasurer, Bill Haywood. In 1905, Haywood and the WFM helped to establish the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, whose members were known as ” Wobblies “), with the goal of organizing the entire working class. The IWW’s long-term goal was to supplant capitalism with a workers’ commonwealth. Nonetheless, when government abuses against the leaders of the WFM seemed too egregious, Gompers relented and offered assistance.

During the following decade, Gompers and his unions vigorously fought the Wobblies, and later cooperated with widespread government arrests of union leaders for the IWW’s militant opposition to the First World War. The IWW was practically defunct by 1920. He likewise fought the socialists, who believed workers and unions could never coexist with business interests and wanted to use the labor unions to advance their more radical political causes, typified by the presidential campaigns of Eugene V. Debs. By 1920, Gompers had largely marginalized the socialists’ role to a few unions, notably coal miners and the needle trades.


Samuel Gompers: Gompers in the office of the American Federation of Labor, 1887.

Racism and Sexism in the AFL

During its first years, the AFL admitted nearly every laboring group without discrimination. Gompers, notably, opened the AFL to radical and socialist workers and to some semiskilled and unskilled workers. Women, African Americans, and immigrants also joined in small numbers. But, by the 1890s, the AFL had begun to organize only skilled workers in craft unions and became an organization of white men. Although the AFL preached a policy of egalitarianism in regard to African-American workers, in reality, it actively discriminated against black workers. For instance, the AFL sanctioned the maintenance of segregated locals within its affiliates—particularly in the construction and railroad industries—a practice that often excluded black workers altogether from union membership and thus from employment in organized industries.

In many respects, the AFL’s treatment of women workers paralleled its policy toward black workers. The AFL never adopted a strict policy of gender exclusion and, at times, even came out in favor of women’s unionism. But despite such rhetoric, the AFL only halfheartedly supported women’s attempts to organize and, more often, took pains to keep women out of unions and the workforce altogether. Women who organized their own unions were often turned down in bids to join the federation, and even women who did join unions found them hostile or intentionally inaccessible. AFL unions often held meetings at night or in bars, when women might find it difficult or uncomfortable to attend, and male unionists often heckled women who tried to speak at meetings.

However, these attitudes gradually changed within the AFL due to the pressure of organized female workers. Women organized independent locals among New York hat makers, in the Chicago stockyards, and among Jewish and Italian waist makers, to name only three examples. Through the efforts of middle-class reformers and activists, often of the Women’s Trade Union League, these unions joined the AFL.

The Molly Maguires

In the 1870s, the Reading Railroad blamed the deals of two dozen mine foremen and administrators on a secret society of Irishmen called the “Molly Maguires.” Although the Reading Railroad hired a Pinkerton undercover detective to investigate, it is highly probable that most of the men accused and executed for being Molly Maguires were innocent. At the time, however, fears about the Molly Maguires enabled mine owners to destroy the miners’ union, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. This action, in conjunction with the Catholic Church’s decision to excommunicate any miners in the fraternal Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), crippled the ability of mine workers to organize in the Pennsylvania coalfields.

The Molly Maguires were a secret Irish-American organization that consisted mainly of coal miners. Many historians believe the “Mollies” were present in the coal fields of Pennsylvania in the United States between the time of the American Civil War until a series of arrests and trials from 1876 to 1878. The defendants were accused of kidnapping and other crimes, largely based on the allegations of powerful industrialist Franklin B. Gowen and the testimony of Pinkerton detective James McParland. The defendants were arrested by the Coal and Iron Police, who served under Gowen; Gowen, who was poised to gain financially from the destruction of the striking union, acted as prosecutor of some of the alleged Molly Maguires at their trials.

Molly Maguire history is sometimes presented as the persecution of an underground movement that was motivated by personal vendettas, and sometimes as a struggle between organized labor and powerful industrial forces. Whether membership in the Molly organization overlapped union membership to any appreciable extent remains open to conjecture

Early Labor Protests

Wage disputes have been the single-most common cause of strikes in the United States. However, American workers have gone on strike for many reasons, including efforts to win union recognition, shorten the workday, gain or maintain control over the work process, or improve working conditions. Strikes have been called to exclude nonwhites or women from jobs and, more rarely, to protest racial discrimination. The first citywide labor federations, formed in the 1820s and 1830s, grew out of strikes by artisans trying to shorten their workday.


In times of economic depression, layoffs and wage cuts angered the workers, leading to violent labor conflicts in 1877 and 1894. In the Great Railroad Strike in 1877, railroad workers across the nation went on strike in response to a 10 percent pay cut. Attempts to break the strike led to bloody uprisings in several cities. The Haymarket Affair took place in 1886. An anarchist apparently threw a bomb at police dispersing a strike rally at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago. The killing of policemen greatly embarrassed the Knights of Labor. They were not involved with the bomb but took most of the blame.

Carnegie’s steel works in Homestead, Pennsylvania, hired a group of 300 Pinkerton detectives to break a bitter strike by the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers. In the riots of 1892, they were fired upon by strikers and 10 of them were killed. As a result, the National Guard was called in to guard the plant. Nonunion workers were hired and the strike was broken. The Homestead plant completely barred unions until 1937.

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Two years later, wage cuts at the Pullman Palace Car Company just outside of Chicago led to a strike. The strike, along with the support of the American Railway Union, soon brought the nation’s railway industry to a halt. The shutdown of rail traffic meant the virtual shutdown of the entire national economy, and President Grover Cleveland responded vigorously. He secured injunctions in federal court, which Debs and the other strike leaders ignored. Cleveland then sent in the army to stop the rioting and get the trains moving. The strike collapsed, as did the American Railway Union.