Important dates in labor history

  • Founding of the National Labor Union

    The NLU is the first national labor federation in the United States, dedicated largely to fighting for the eight-hour day. This goal was not achieved nationally, though in 1868 Congress did establish the eight-hour day for government employees (a law not consistently enforced). The organization falls apart during the depression of the 1870s.
  • Founding of the Knights of Labor

    This nationwide organization grew in the 1870s as the NLU fades; by 1886, in the wake of significant victories in strikes against railroad companies, it has 800,000 members. Its long-term aim is to create a cooperative commonwealth of labor in the United States, in which the wages system would be abolished and workers would control their work. More immediately, it fights for the eight-hour day, higher wages, women’s economic rights, racial equality, laws against child labor, and industrial
  • the Great Railroad Strike, a.k.a. the Great Upheaval

    In response to wage cuts, depression, unemployment, and savage treatment by capitalists, spontaneous strikes spread along railway lines from West Virginia to cities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri, and other states. By the time the colossal strike is crushed by state militias, police forces, and federal troops—after 45 days of fierce resistance by workers—a hundred people have been killed and 100,000 workers have gone on strike.
  • Haymarket bombing in Chicago

    At a rally in support of the national movement for an eight-hour day—a movement that has inspired half a million workers to go on strike on May 1, 1886—an unidentified person throws a bomb into the crowd that kills seven policemen and several civilians. In a subsequent trial much criticized for its lack of objectivity, eight anarchists are convicted of conspiracy (though not of throwing the bomb), seven of whom are sentenced to death.
  • Formation of the American Federation of Labor

    The AFL is founded as a craft-union-based alternative to the Knights of Labor, and accordingly takes a relatively conservative approach to labor activism. It eschews “social movement unionism” and opposition to capitalism as such, focusing instead on bread-and-butter issues like wages and other incremental demands that can be won through collective bargaining. As the Knights of Labor collapses, the AFL slowly grows to encompass millions of (mostly skilled) workers.
  • Passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act

    This law is intended to prohibit business activities that interfere with free competition. In one of history’s many ironies, though, it is frequently used to justify injunctions against union activities, such as strikes, that are said to interfere with competition.
  • Homestead strike

    In an attempt to destroy the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA), the powerful union of skilled workers at the Carnegie steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, Henry Clay Frick locks them out of the plant. Other workers in the plant and town then go on strike in solidarity with their fellows. The conflict escalates as Frick tries to break the strike with the help of 300 Pinkerton “detectives”—effectively a private army
  • Pullman strike

    Factory employees of the Pullman Company in Chicago go on strike to protest their low wages and abysmal treatment by George Pullman. In solidarity, Eugene Debs and his American Railway Union declare a boycott of all trains carrying Pullman cars; at its peak, the boycott involves 250,000 workers. President Grover Cleveland sends troops to Chicago to get the trains moving again, which infuriates the strikers, who react with violence.
  • the Industrial Workers of the World is formed

    Despite its many defeats, the militant wing of the labor movement remains unbowed. It forms the IWW as a radical, anarcho-syndicalist alternative to the more conservative AFL, and organizes workers along class lines rather than occupational lines. It is the only union at the time to welcome all people into its ranks, including immigrants, women, and African-Americans.
  • Shirtwaist strike in New York

    Workers in the garment industry, which employs primarily young women, vote for a general strike against low pay, long hours, awful working conditions, and discrimination for union activity. Led mostly by rank-and-file women, the strike of almost thirty thousand lasts eleven weeks. Finally, employers give in to most of the workers’ demands, including a shorter week, no discrimination against union loyalists, and negotiation of wages with employees.