The Amateur Academic’s Guide to American Labor Movements

Since the country’s formation, to desire for democracy and equal rights in the workplace has been the intertwined with the American dream. The privileges and rights that we expect today were hard-fought during the dawn of the American labor movements. While unions, freedoms and rights continue to evolve with our changing economy, the fundamentals remain the same.

Labor Movements: A Brief History

The 1600s

  • Shortly after the establishment of Jamestown in 1607, the colonies began taking indentured servants. These workers were brought over from Africa, Britain, Ireland, Scotland and Germany. Eventually, they were released from servitude and given land to start their new life.
  • The strike of Polish craftsmen in Jamestown in 1619 was the first documented labor uprising in United States history. The craftsmen were angered by their lack of voting rights, despite their contribution of glass, pitch and tar to the Jamestown colony. Realizing the importance of their trade, colonial leaders granted the Poles full voting rights.
  • John Casor, an indentured servant from Africa, became the first documented slave in 1655. After holding Casor beyond his length of service, Anthony Johnson won a court battle against Casor, making Casor his slave for life.

The 1700s

  • Out of rebellion against oppressive British taxes, the Sons of Liberty was born in 1765. The Daughters of Liberty, the first society of working women, formed shortly thereafter.
  • British troops killed five dock workers during the Boston Massacre of 1770. A riotous battled ensued after a Edward Gerrish, a wig-maker’s apprentice, insulted a British officer for not paying his master’s bill.
  • In 1773, laborers protested a tariff on British tea, demanding the tea be sent back without payment. When the royal governor refused to give in, citizens dumped the tea into the harbor. This event, known as the Boston Tea Party, spawned a series of Acts by Parliament, including the Administration of Justice Act, which protected royal officials on colonial soil.
  • The first recorded strike for increased wages happened in 1786 when Philadephia printers demanded a minimum wage of $6 a week.
  • On the heels of this strike, Philadelphia shoemakers formed the first labor union for collective bargaining in 1792.

The 1800s

  • In 1806, the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers, formerly the Philadelphia shoemakers union, were found guilty of conspiracy after protesting for higher wages. The organization went bankrupt, forcing them to disband. This set the precedent for employers to sue labor unions.
  • In response to wage cuts, long shifts and safety issues, women working in textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts went on strike in 1834. They were defeated by their powerful employers on two separate occasions. The women formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in the 1840s, organizing chapters in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and petitioning for shorter work days.
  • In 1842, the Commonwealth v. Hunt case found that the act of unionizing was not illegal. Groups would only be found guilty if their purpose was for criminal or unlawful acts or by criminal or unlawful means.
  • Because of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association’s political action, New Hampshire became the first state to enact a law for a 10 hour work day in 1847.
  • The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted in 1865, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime.
  • The National Labor Union formed in 1866 to pressure Congress to make labor law reforms, including one for an eight hour work day.
  • Labor Day was first celebrated in 1882 after its creation by the Central Labor Union in New York. The day was dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.
  • Congress passed the Erdman Act in 1898 in response to railroad labor disputes. The act made it illegal to fire a railroad employee for union membership.

The 1900s

  • In 1911, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York resulted in 146 deaths. The company’s owners had locked the exit doors, preventing employees from escaping. The employers were charged with manslaughter. This catastrophic event led to safer working conditions in sweatshops.
  • The United States Department of Labor was established in 1913 to support wage earners, while protecting labor, business and the general public.
  • The stock market crashed in 1929, marking the start of the Great Depression. This was the worst economic downturn in United States history and resulted in the unemployment of nearly 15 million Americans.
  • In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Securities Act into law. This Act provides benefits for retired workers, victims of industrial accidents, unemployment insurance, and aid for dependents.
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act, approved in 1938, banned child labor, established the minimum wage at 25 cents, and set the maximum workweek at 44 hours.
  • In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination based on sex, race, nationality, ethnicity and religion.
  • In 1965, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and the National Farm Workers Association joined forces to form the United Farm Workers of America. This organization demanded farm workers receive pay equal to the national minimum wage.
  • The Occupational Health and Safety Act was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970, protecting employees from a hazardous work environment.
  • In response to the Professional Air Traffic Controllers strike of 1981, President Ronald Reagan terminated the jobs of nearly 12,000 members in violation of the law banning strikes by government unions.
  • Pride at Work, a constituency group of the AFL-CIO, was formed in 1999 to help make labor unions inclusive of lesbians, gay, bisexuals and transgendered (LGBT) workers.

Labor Movements Today

In the last 10 years, labor unions and workers have continued to face challenges head on in hopes of more change to come. Whether they are teachers fighting for smaller classrooms and increased salaries or the LBGT community pushing for the equal employment rights, American workers still have a long road ahead. But, thanks to the pioneering men and women of past labor movements, the groundwork has been laid for a positive future.