American Labour Movements: the early years

Though the full force of the labour movement was not to become a political force until after the Civil War, American workers were organizing and advocating for themselves since before the Revolution.

Early protests and strikes in the 17th and 18th centuries consisted largely of journeymen in a particular trade who formed temporary groups to press their demands, normally by publishing them in local newspapers. Trade societies did exist, but were primarily philanthropic, acting as a social safety net for their members in the case of ill-health or bad luck, and caring for the widows and orphans of members who died in poor circumstances.1 The War of 1812 saw a halting of trade with Britain, which created new opportunity for American manufacturing. Spinning factories were built in New England to process the Southern cotton that couldn’t be exported. Though initially the factory-spun yarn was “put out” to farm families for weaving, merchants sought greater control over their product and labour force, and the development of the power loom in 1820 allowed them to have the workforce to come them. Rural outwork such as weaving and palm-leaf hat-making was primarily done by young unmarried farm women,2 and this group was also an ideal source of factory workers, since they could be paid less than skilled tradesmen. After the War ended, infrastructure was built and trade resumed, which made it cheaper to transport raw materials and manufactured goods, but also allowed British imports to compete with American-made, though the opening up of the Ohio valley to settlement meant that labour continued to be in short supply, giving trade unions more bargaining power.3 The economic downturn that accompanied the Panic of 1819 caused the break-up of many trade societies, which were too small and local to make demands when work was scarce and could not prevent their members from taking whatever work they could find. Wages plummeted as a result.4 Once the economy stabilized after the chartering of the Second Bank of the United States, prosperity revitalized the trade unions and also saw an increasing level of organization among common labourers and factory workers, including Pawtucket mill women in 1824.5 The mill women, like the tailors in Buffalo, ship carpenters in Philadelphia, cabinetmakers in Baltimore, and journeymen of varying trades in New York, wanted higher wages and for the workday to be limited to ten hours. Unlike earlier temporary assemblages, these trade unions did not hesitate to go on strike and organize boycotts. Additionally, the local trade societies were willing to band together with those of other trades, dramatically increasing their negotiation power. 1827 saw the first Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations in Philadelphia, as an outgrowth of a carpenters’ strike for a ten-hour workday that had grown to include bricklayers, painters, and glaziers. The strike did not succeed, but the tradesmen’s alliance did, and all trade societies in the city were invited to join a more permanent umbrella association. Those trades which were not organized were encouraged to do so, quickly.

The Mechanics’ Union had more on its agenda than ten hour workdays and higher pay. Leaders of the trade unions under its banner formulated political theory on the superior value of labour to capital, seeking to protect the rights of workers in the face of capitalism and an increasing class distinction between those who worked (producers) and those who paid others to work, who they saw as parasites on society. The theory went that “If the mass of people were enabled by their labour to procure for themselves and families a full and abundant supply of the comforts and conveniences of life, the consumption of articles, particularly of dwellings, furniture and clothing, would amount to at least twice the quantity it does at present, and of course the demand, by which employers are enabled either to subsist or accumulate would likewise be increased in an equal proportion… The real object, therefore, of this association, is to avert, if possible, the desolating evils which must inevitably arise from a depreciation of the intrinsic value of human labour…” In other words, higher wages and better treatment for workers would benefit industry by increasing demand for the products and services created by it. Many similar organizations began forming in other parts of Pennsylvania, New York City, upstate New York, and New England, and workingmen’s parties throughout the states as far west as Ohio began running political candidates and even electing them. There was a similar rise in the number of labour newspapers during the 1830s, full of enthusiasm and optimism that a new social order was unfolding, a continuation of the Revolution five decades earlier.6 Jacksonian democracy was both at odds with and allied with the workingmen’s parties.7 Anti-capitalist politics and producer ideology were common in both, but Jacksonian democracy was primarily concerned with agrarian interests and those of the slave-holding South, while the workingmen’s parties sought greater participation in government for those who did not own land, and recognized that free public education was the key to equal citizenship for all. Other common platforms included tax reform, the abolishment of debtors’ prisons, a revision of the militia system, and a firmer separation between church and state, already beginning to creep inward as a result of the Great Awakening. The workingmen’s parties terrified conservatives. Thomas Skidmore, a leader of the New York labour party, wrote a formidable treatise proposing that all debts and property claims be cancelled and the assets of society be distributed equally to each citizen. Every citizen, he wrote, was entitled to the guarantee “that reasonable toil shall enable him to live as comfortably as others.”8 He also advocated doing away with inheritance. More approachable and less radical was George Henry Evans, whose newspaper Working Man’s Advocate carried the slogan “All children are entitled to equal education; all adults to equal property; and all mankind to equal privileges.”9 Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright were even more terrifying in the eyes of conservatives– Owen advocated more liberal divorce laws and took the idea of free public education to the point of universal boarding schools under a system of “state guardianship”10, and Wright was a radical simply for speaking in public while female, much less advocating so strongly for women’s rights and divorce laws that she was accused of promoting free love. She was also, along with others, an ardent abolitionist.11 Unfortunately, internal friction and pressure to distance themselves from the more radical elements among them caused the collapse and fragmentation of the New York labour party, and they were subsumed into the Tammany Hall political machine. Elsewhere, workers’ rights parties were lured under the Democrat banner by promises to tear down the structures of elite privilege personified by the Second Bank of the United States.12 Jackson had no understanding of the banking system, and in removing the Second Bank of the United States, he set off a boom of wildcat banks and speculation that sent inflation soaring and increased the cost of living, with nowhere near a corresponding wage increase for those worked for their living. Throughout the 1830s, employers increasingly were using women and children as cheaper labour, which caused a trades assembly committee in Philadelphia to declare in 1836 that “of fifty-eight societies, twenty-four are seriously affected by female labour.” Union membership soared. Women’s wages were to remain lower in all fields, though this was frequently due to gender segregated workplaces– in early-period family shoemaking workshops, for instance, women would assemble the linings and uppers (shoebinding) by hand at the kichen table, turning over the unfinished shoes to the men to be finished and fitted with soles. When shoebinding at home gave way to machine-sewing in a factory, women continued to be the primary workers at this stage while the men who did the rest were paid more for what was considered skilled labour.13 Paulina Wright Davis had a different solution to the issue of women’s wages– pointing out that there were thousands of occupations that women were just as capable of engaging in as men, with no reason for them to be paid less. Women began forming their own unions, with the 1830s seeing a strike in Lowell to protest a rise in rents at the company boardinghouses (where the women were required to live under the care of a chaperone) without a corresponding wage increase, and another in the 1840s for a ten hour workday.14

The frequently-demanded ten hour workday was a rejection of Puritanical labour theory that equated sun-up to sun-down industry with virtue and any form of idleness with sin. Working from six in the morning till six at night, with an hour each for breakfast and dinner, was productivity enough in the eyes of most workers, and left them some time in the evening to read or attend lectures, a common form of popular entertainment and education at the time. The argument against cited that such time would be more likely spent drinking, gambling, and contributing to societal ills such as prostitution.15 Meanwhile the battle over wages continued, as courts found trade unions guilty of conspiracy of restraint in trade, and classified action to increase wages as a misdemeanor against the public good. “Competition is the life of trade,” ran the New York Supreme Court at the conclusion of the 1835 case of People vs Fisher, “If the defendants cannot make coarse boots for less than one dollar per pair, let them refuse to do so; but let them not directly or indirectly undertake to say that others shall not do the work for a less price.”16 Public response was generally on the side of the unions, however, and 1842 the Massachusetts Supreme Court decreed in Commonwealth vs Hunt that unions did indeed have a right to demand closed shops (workplaces in which union membership was required). Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw pointed out that if the Journeymen Bootmakers’ Society of Boston had agreed to refuse to work for anyone who hired a user of strong spirits, there would be no issue, and that refusing to work was a legal means of accomplishing both goals.17 It was not a full victory, but it was an important one.

Meanwhile, further north in the New England textile mills, competition was driving down working conditions. The ten hour workday turned into 11.5 or 13 hours during the late 1840s, and the women were expected to tend four looms where they had previously tended only two. Wages remained low while the company boardinghouses remained crowded, and the flood of eager applicants from the countryside slowed to a trickle.18 This might have given more ammunition to the mill women’s requests for shorter work hours and higher wages for those willing to tend more looms at a time, if not for a flood of immigrants from Ireland and Germany escaping famine and war respectively, who were willing to work long hours for any amount without complaint. The arrival of cheap immigrant labour was to devastate wages and trade unions. Slums grew quickly in Eastern seaboard cities, as urban workers were unable to afford proper housing and crowded into ramshackle and unsanitary tenements.19 Rather than join together to demand better conditions, the urban workforce splintered along religious and ethnic lines, and the line between skilled and unskilled labour hardened, with American-born Protestant skilled workers in long established trades on one side, and immigrants, Catholics, women, and children working as unskilled labour on the other.20 The skilled workers were able to establish unions to maintain apprenticeship standards and enforce closed shops, fair wages, and reasonable hours in their own trades, but they were largely uninterested in promoting such things for those in other trades. The 1850s were, however, marked by the development of national trade organizations for a specific trade.


Dublin, Thomas. Transforming Women’s Work: New England lives in the Industrial Revolution. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, 1994.

Dubofsky, Melvyn and Foster Rhea Dulles. Labour In America: A history. Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc. 1999.

Giele, Janet Zollinger. Two Paths to Women’s Equality: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Origins of Modern Feminism. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

1Melvyn Dubofsky, Labor In America: A History, 23.

2Thomas Dublin, Transforming Women’s Work: New England, 45.

3Dubofsky, Labor In America, 25.

4Dubofsky, Labor, 30.

5Dubofsky, Labor, 31.

6Dubofsky, Labor, 33.

7Dubofsky, Labor, 35.

8Dubofsky, Labor, 37.

9Dubofsky, Labor, 38.

10Dubofsky, Labor 39.

11Dubofsky, Labor, 39.

12Dubofsky, Labor, 43.

13Dublin, Transforming Women’s Work, 131.

14Janet Zollinger Giele, Two Paths to Women’s Equality: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Origins of Modern Feminism, 50.

15Dubofsky, Labor, 57.

16Dubofsky, Labor, 60.

17Dubofsky, Labor, 41.

18Dubofsky, Labor, 70.

19Dubofsky, Labor, 72-73.

20Dubofsky, Labor, 81.


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