Forebears of Today’s Labor Movement: Progress, Dilemmas and Setbacks

We want a good apprentice and mechanics lien law in every state … We want the abolition of the present system of prison labor … We want the repeal of all the “conspiracy laws” making it an offense for men to belong to “Trade Unions.”  We want a plain practical law in every state recognizing Trade Unions as legally authorized bodies, qualified to do business, hold property, etc. … We want virtue, not vice; honesty, not rascality; statesmanship, not partisan demagogism; brains, not money; to rule in the councils of the nation. [1]

Those words were spoken in 1869 by William Sylvis, the president of the International Molders Union and subsequently president of the National Labor Union (NLU).  Though the language marks it clearly of another era, distant from our own, it is a reminder of a history that had a great deal of influence on the subsequent shape of working-class organization.  Labor Day, we might recall, came into being during the struggle for the 8-hour day in the mid-1880s and out of the crucible of events in those years all the various tendencies that have shaped US unions in the years since were in play – be that craft or industrial organization, mainstream or independent political action, adjusting to the contours of capitalist society or being committed to a socialist alternative.

But no movement arises from the ether; activists in the 1880s were themselves drawing upon the traditions of the first stable national union organizations that emerged toward the end of the Civil War: the NLU (founded in 1866) and the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU -- founded in 1869).  These were painstakingly created by working people who themselves, skilled and unskilled alike, often labored ten-hour days or longer and were, generally, only a paycheck or two away from poverty and hunger. And those unionists had to grapple with questions of what to do and in which direction to move with comparatively little to draw upon other than their own direct experiences.  Thus it is not surprising that these were short-lived, yet it may surprise many that these initiatives have a relevance for our time – for these first attempts at labor unity collapsed around differences which plague us still.


Prior to the Civil War, efforts to build unions and labor political organizations were generally established within particular cities or states.  This changed during over the course of the war for its aftermath saw the growth of more centralized and consolidated business power than the country had ever faced.  Out of this emerged the NLU, initially comprising national unions, local unions, trade assemblies and eight-hour leagues – altogether 59 organizations representing about 60,000 members.   The program they adopted focused on establishment of an 8-hour day, preservation and expansion of union rights (which had no firm legal protections), expanding/improving public education, establishment of worker cooperatives and elimination of slum housing.

Unions were organized around particular crafts or trades representing workers who moved from location and employer to location and employer wherever work could be found.  Worker assemblies were an analogous formation of unskilled and immigrant workers combined within city-wide organizations irrespective of employer or type of job.  The NLU’s aim was to bring these diverse formations together by establishing a firm organizational framework to build mutual support and maintain union existence through periods of economic downturns (prior to the Civil War, unions painstakingly built over a decade or more would dissolve or disappear with each cyclical crash).  

Although there was a strong sense of mutuality amongst workers, there was little organic connection between different trades; thus independent labor political action appeared as the means to achieve needed reforms in society and create the framework for solidarity beyond that within a particular craft or workplace.  To do so, NLU leadership sought inclusion of black workers in union ranks and supported women’s rights – including to work and union membership – but the same quest for unity with existing organizations meant that it tolerated and accepted exclusionary practices of its member unions in reference to both.  The NLU could in its own name advocate policies, but could not compel its affiliates to do so.

For its part, the Colored National Labor Union was founded in 1869 drawing upon black labor organizations and assemblies of craft workers, laborers, and sharecroppers/plantation workers – in particular among waterfront workers (and related crafts) in port towns like Charleston and Baltimore.  Poverty limited the number of worker delegates who could physically attend its founding or subsequent Conventions, so, unlike the National Labor Union, many delegates and leaders were drawn from the emerging black middle-class (a middle class, we should not forget, hemmed in by racism and insecure economically) composed of lawyers, politicians and other professionals.  That said, a significant number were skilled workers and they were the ones who at the outset defined the CNLU’s direction.

Delegates declared that the purpose of the gathering was “to consolidate the colored workingmen of the several states to act in cooperation with our fellow white workingmen … who are opposed to distinction in the apprenticeship laws on account of color and to so act cooperatively until the necessity for separate organization shall be deemed unnecessary.” [2]  Their goal was to build inter-union cooperation in order to prevent their exclusion or expulsions from trades and crafts.  What they demanded, however, was not just jobs, but jobs with equal pay and rights.

The two organizations did indeed cooperate but the differences were more than they could overcome.  A brief overview of various points of tension within the working class, symptomatic of other fissures in US society, should speak to us in our present-day search for justice and freedom


Race – Most unions in the North refused to allow black workers to join.  Even in industrial settings, work was organized around particular crafts; workers employed in these gained strength relative to employers when the number of available jobs increased and the number of people competing for those jobs decreased.  This division of work became the rationale for exclusion, especially in the North where workers generally felt employment as precarious.  At the same time, through bitter experience of strikes broken by scabs recruited from among the unemployed, unionists recognized that the organization of all workers was the only way for unions to survive, no matter how prejudiced they might feel toward those of a different race or religion or nationality.

Black workers were put in a particularly difficult position in the North because they were relatively few in number and because prior to Emancipation, their legal status as citizens was often in question.  This made it all the harder for them to build stable organizations, and made it all the easier for groups of white workers to exclude them from worksites.  In the South, the situation was different – blacks predominated as laborers whether skilled or unskilled.  After the Civil War, with the granting of citizenship rights, they made every effort to organize both their own separate institutions and to be integrated into those built by white laborers.

The NLU supported these efforts.  In its first public address in 1867, the new federation issued a statement declaring that black workers “must necessarily become in their new relationship [i.e. free] an element of strength or an element of weakness, and it is for the workingmen of America to decide which that shall be” … and asked if workers would permit capitalists to realize their “cherished idea of antagonism between white and black labor.”[3] By 1869 the question was seemingly answered with the proclamation: “… the National Labor Union knows no North, no South, no East, no West, neither color nor sex on the question of the rights of labor …”[4]

Although from the standpoint of the federation, the statement was sincere – and black delegates played a meaningful role in its Conventions and organization from 1869 forward -- it was unable to compel or persuade the core of members whom they represented to adopt that same policy.   Many had whites only clauses in their bylaws, many more began to incorporate them.  The same year the NLU declared it knew “no color,” the International Typographers Union denied membership to Lewis Douglass (Frederick Douglass’s son) – the ITU leadership acknowledging that he had every right to join, but that the union would deny him because the prejudice of its own membership was too strong to challenge.

Part of inability to move forward was due as well to the narrow understanding of class held by NLU leaders.  They believed in economic equality between black and white workers and understood that only by such means could labor have the strength to be truly independent of capital and overcome the oppression they themselves keenly felt.  But even those who advocated such a view, most – including Sylvis – held racist views widespread as slavery came to an end and did not believe in social equality.  Yet the very belief that only economic equality mattered meant that when they called for political independence around social reform, they did so by viewing Reconstruction through the lens of their own hostility to Northern urban Democratic Party machine politics, equally condemning Republican and Democratic Parties.

In consequence, the dominant perspective of the NLU was that the Civil War and Reconstruction only meant enhanced corporate power, failing to understand that the war and its aftermath had a completely different meaning to those who had been living under the yoke of slavery.  The CNLU also saw unity as being based on shared economic demands, but, of necessity, the CNLU would not compromise on the question of social equality, for without that black labor (and the black community as a whole) would be powerless.  For them, purely trade union unity was possible and necessary – yet equally necessary for unity of all workers was to allow for political difference.  Black unionists supported the Republican Party, notwithstanding its being a vehicle of corporate expansion, because it provided the only available framework to give content to that newly gained liberty.  Inevitably, they saw the questions of the day from the standpoint of freedom or its lack.  As Isaac Myers, a shipyard caulker from Baltimore and the most prominent black labor leader during this time, put it:

“American citizenship is a complete failure, if [the Negro] is proscribed from the workshops of this country – if any man cannot employ him who chooses, and if he cannot work for any man whom he will.  If citizenship means anything at all, it means the freedom of labor, as broad and as universal as the freedom of the ballot.”[5]

There was no shared understanding of those words, of the living, breathing memories behind them, and so the possibilities of deepening the cooperation that did exist between the two labor federations failed to materialize.

Gender -- Sylvis argued that as men and women lived side by side, they should have the same educational opportunities, equal economic rights and the same right to vote.  Flowing from that he believed that unions should cooperate with women’s labor organizations.  Over opposition, Sylvis successfully argued for the right of Elizabeth Cady Stanton – on behalf of a women’s suffrage organization – to be seated as a delegate to an NLU Convention, and in appointing a woman (Kate Mullaney) to serve as an NLU officer and organizer.  Mullaney was a laundry worker who led a successful campaign for a wage increase in 1863.  Subsequently the laundry workers union raised $1,000 as a contribution to a fund for locked-out iron molders.  It was a gesture of solidarity that contributed to Sylvis’ understanding of the validity of the demands posed by the women’s movement.

The Working Women’s Association – itself a mixed assembly of women from various industries and women’s suffrage advocates like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony -- joined the NLU too, supporting political reform but as an issue secondary to the goal of economic rights.  Initially, they sought to create avenues for women to learn trades, believing that their inability to do so previous had been due to the denial of such opportunities rather than malevolence of male unionists.  

Augusta Lewis, a typographer and later corresponding secretary of the NLU, typified that outlook, initially rejecting the demand for women’s political rights as premature.  However, after the typographer’s union refused to open its ranks to women – and then accused women denied membership of being “scabs” when they still sought work – made it clear to her that more fundamental change was needed.  Lewis, in a report to the NLU noted that “We refuse to take the men’s situations when they are on strike, and when there is no strike if we ask for work in union offices we are told by union foremen ‘that there are no conveniences for us.’  We are ostracized in many offices because we are members of the union, and although the principle is right, disadvantages are so many that we cannot much longer hold together … It is the general opinion of female compositors that they are more justly treated by what is termed ‘rat’ foremen, printers and employers than they are by union men.”[6]

Exclusion of women by almost all individual trade unions meant that the NLU’s support of women’s rights became separated from its membership and work place equality unacknowledged as a goal – especially after Sylvis’ untimely death.  But the problems ran deeper than the strength or weakness of any individual leader, for the prejudice of male workers reinforced (and was reinforced by) a union practice that saw exclusion of segments of workers as a means of worker strength.  Exclusion, however, was no longer a sign of independent strength as in pre-industrial times; rather it reflected acceptance of labor’s commodification by the “free market.  Gains made at the expense of other workers proved temporary, for capital invariably used differences between groups of workers to drive down wages and working conditions of all (a foretaste of what we see today with corporate globalization).  

The CNLU and its union affiliates, because of the bitter experience by black workers of racist exclusion on the job, never advocated the exclusion of women workers from union membership or employment.  Yet that did not mean they opened up to full women’s participation – as one woman complained at its Newport, Rhode Island Convention, “in all your deliberations, speeches, and resolutions, which were excellent so far as the men are concerned, the poor’s woman’s interests were not mentioned or referred to.”[7]  Moreover, although some CNLU delegates advocated women’s suffrage, the organization as a whole failed to include it in its program.  The impulse to work on economic equality while protecting the rights embodied in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution as a guarantee of rights contributed to the decision to not advocate new social rights.

Immigration – the roots of the NLU lay in attempts by unions to prevent the importation of workers from abroad (especially from Ireland and Germany) as strikebreakers.  Hostility to European immigrants was the reason a segment of the working class supported the anti-immigrant (anti-Catholic) Know Nothing Party prior to the Civil War.  Unionists recognized early on that this was untenable and union organization remained aloof from those anti-immigrant forces.  Yet the outlook persisted because the reality of job competition was ever-present.  Part of Northern trade union opposition to Lincoln and the Republicans lay in opposition to the very concepts that won Lincoln support from western workers and (ultimately, abolitionists): “free labor, free land, free men”  [sic].

This flew in the face of the notions of cooperatives which were advocated by the fledging labor movement and expressed itself in attempts to restrict immigration (Lincoln was a supporter of what today we would call open borders).  Western expansion and its connection to “freedom” also caused consternation because of the militarization it entailed – troops used to take Native American land were the ones used to suppress strikes in the 1870s and 1880s (and, of course, Native Americans experienced the same process as “unfreedom” to put it mildly).

All that said, the NLU did advocate rights for all workers irrespective of race, nationality, gender or religion is a legacy that formed the labor movement in the future just as did the legacy of exclusion.  One group of workers, however, were not included even in rhetoric.  Chinese workers were seen only as “cheap labor”.  This was a legacy which afflicted many unionists as well as some socialists in years to come (and one may even get glimpses in the way Chinese workers are presumed to undermine American workers to this day).

Even the CNLU at its founding Convention passed a resolution condemning the use of “contract Chinese or Coolie labor” that was “forcing American laborers to work for Coolie wages or starve, and crowding us out on all sides, and reducing the workingman to a state worse than slavery.”  But the daily struggle against discrimination led to a change in that sentiment and a later meeting passed a resolution with a different sentiment: “With us, too, numbers count … Hence, our industrial movement, emancipating itself from every national and partial sentiment, broadens and deepens its foundations, so as to rear … a superstructure, capacious enough to accommodate … the Irish, the Negro, and the German laborer … the “poor white” native of the South … the white mechanic and laborer of the North … as well as the Chinaman.”[8]

Political action – Ultimately, the breaking point around which lines of division collided was one with truly contemporary resonance:  elections.  The National Labor Union was strongly in favor of building an independent political party, the National Labor Party, with a program that included demands for a shorter working day, abolition of child labor, and currency reform, as part of a long-range program for social reform.

Edward Schlegel of the German Working-Men’s Association of Chicago, put the matter thusly:

“A new party of the people must be in the minority when it first comes into action but what of that?  Time and perseverance will give us victory; and if we and if we are not willing to sacrifice time and employ perseverance, we are not deserving of victory.  A new party must be formed, composed of the element of American labor.  We are shy of fighting the old political parties, but should not be.  If we are right, let us go ahead.  The Free-Soil Party originated with a few thousand votes; but if it had not been formed, Lincoln would never have been President of the United States … “[9]  

Black unionists in the South did not believe they had the luxury of time.  Isaac Myers’s words stood in direct contrast to Schlegel’s: “While the Republican Party is not the beau ideal of our notion of a party, the interests of workingmen demand that they shall not hazard its success either by the organization of a new party or by affiliation with the Democratic Party.”[10]

By 1872 the National Labor Reform Party fielded a national presidential candidate.  The slow, painstaking process of building a political alternative however, proved insufficient, it collapsed the same year.  The initiative was not strong enough to overcome opposition from local unions that remained committed to the Democratic Party.  Weakened by defections, it was unable to prevent the new party from being undermined by contending groups of Democratic and Republican politicians with little or no connection to trade unions.  The Labor Reform Party’s demise meant the demise of the NLU itself.

Meanwhile, the creation of the National Labor Reform Party led to a definitive break with the CNLU.  For newly freed slaves in the South, experiencing the first possibilities of political freedom and already threatened by violence, any initiative that might lead to Republican Party defeat was viewed as a threat.  As attacks on Reconstruction governments became fiercer and commitment to equality became weaker, the maintenance of Republican state governments in the South and in Washington DC became an existential question.  Yet that orientation meant that the specific programs advocated by black unions were given short shrift.  All the while, the process of pushing black workers out of jobs they once held proceeded inexorably.  As fewer and fewer unions took part in the CNLU it became little more than a Republican Party electoral vehicle.  By 1876, the CNLU had ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, corporate power grew, while worker political influence – within the two parties or independently – withered.   Over the next decades union workers, militant or reformist, emphasized direct action and building organization over political action.  The possibilities for further democratic advance in US society weakened.

Endings and Legacies

The 1873 Depression wiped out what was left of either organization as industry ground to a standstill with only about 20% of the workforce holding steady, full-time jobs.  The number of national unions declined from 30 to 9, membership from 300,000 to 50,000; the collapse of local unions was even more precipitous.  The next wave of organization and struggle burst upon the scene with the mass railroad strikes in 1877, with the 8-hour movement in 1886 and the Haymarket tragedy, in the growth and swift decline of the Knights of Labor, of the emergence of the Populist Party, and the establishment of the American Federation of Labor, the emergence of fledgling socialist organizations – and the creation of Labor Day.   Alongside these, but not fully integrated within them, the struggle for African American rights continued unabated; so too did that of women for the vote and for equality; and so too did that of each new wave of immigrants (including those from China).

Labor militance and organization then and in the years to come enabled workers to make meaningful gains against corporate power.  But the failure to organically connect those strands of struggle together meant that the potential of working-class power and unity was not realized. A great democratic advance won through victory in the Civil War and of Reconstruction in its connection between democracy, equality and the rights of labor – and the NLU’s attempts to build an independent trade union movement rooted in the working-class and articulating a class point of view were both positive developments that would have been stronger if allied.

Labor’s unity at the workplace and in political action was sought by both the NLU and CNLU; their legacy will only be fulfilled when that unity is created by challenging exclusion of rights and challenging the exploitation of labor.

The Iron Molders Union retained an independent existence until the end of the 20th century.  Throughout its history the union promoted the “William Sylvis Society” with some of its members participating in DSA’s labor conferences in the 1980s and 90s.  Their watchword might be found in this statement by Sylvis which calls to us still:

“Capital blights and withers all it touches.  It is a new aristocracy, proud, imperious, dishonest, seeking only profit and exploitation of the workers.” [But] “Labor is the foundation of the entire political, social and commercial structure … the attribute of all that is noble and good in civilization.” [So] “Let our cry be REFORM … Down with a monied aristocracy and up with the people.” [11]


[1] William Sylvis, Pioneer of American Labor by Jonathan Grossman (New York, Colombia University Press, 1945), p. 256.

[2] Reconstruction by James S. Allen, (New York, International Publishers, 1963) pp 158.

[3] Ibid.  pp 154-155.

[4] Ibid. p. 158.

[5] Organized Labor and the Black Worker by Philip Foner, (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2017) p 25.

[6] Century of Struggle by Eleanor Flexner (New York, Antheneum, 1972) p 136.
[7] From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend by Priscilla Murolo & A. B. Chitty (New York, The New Press, 1971) p 103.

[8] Ibid. p 103.

[9] Hillquit, op. cit. pp 164-165.

[10] History of the Labor Movement of the United States, Vol. 1 by Philip Foner, (New York, International Publishers, 1962), p. 407

[11] Murolo, op. cit. p 99.

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